Fiery Terry Collins and maddening Mets melded, and unexpected result is a winning team

Tim Brown

LOS ANGELES – Squinting against the mid-afternoon sun and warmed by a winning streak, the manager of the New York Mets admitted, yes, it was all true.

After most of a lifetime resisting the imperfections of the game, its players, its bounces and its injustices, he has mostly, if not entirely – OK sometimes – ceded to its whims.

Terry Collins is 63. A man does not surrender at 63, at least not a man such as Collins. But he does perhaps begin to recognize there are forces bigger than himself, and that sometimes he must run with the wind rather than against it, if only to turn and fight another day.

See – and this notion didn't come easy for Collins – the game is almost always greater than the man. It sucks and it's not fair. And when a man fights every day, every day, then that becomes the job – to fight. Sometimes the fight is just and sometimes it is blind, and because Collins didn't discriminate, the fight showed up every day, more game than even he was.

He recalled the frustration of watching the same player making the same mistake for what seemed like the thousandth time. Exhausted and livid, Collins turned to Del Crandall, the wise old coach, and asked, somewhat rhetorically, "How many times do I have to tell this guy?"

Without raising an eyebrow, Crandall said, "One more."

It is the essence of coaching.

"It was the best piece of advice I ever got," Collins said. "You know, you can't expect everyone to have the same passion."

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Some 20 months ago, the Mets hired Collins. They were lost again, seeking stability, seeking fight. He was the guy who wouldn't discriminate. Set 'em up, he'd knock 'em down, one injustice at a time.

Except maybe no one expected Collins to have made peace with the game that taunted him all these decades, that left him as an overachieving minor leaguer as a player and as an enduring runner-up as a big-league manager. Maybe not peace, exactly, but an understanding. Maybe he spends a few summers coaching in the minor leagues, remembering when the game was imprecise, but also pure and promising. He turns his back to the wind and it carries him a little, just every once in a while, and he's better for it, and so are the young players he guides.

The job in New York looked impossible. It was a career killer. The Mets were half-broken in spirit and flat broke on the bottom line. So Met apathy would collide with Collins fury and there'd be casualties, starting with Collins. But that would be fine, because the organization would be better for it, and Collins would take it like a man, because he always did.

Except, instead, they grew on each other. Collins had changed, and maybe the Mets had something to do with that. The Mets had changed, and maybe Collins had something to do with that.

Halfway through their second season together, the Mets are relevant. More so, the Mets are dangerous. This is due in large part to David Wright and Johan Santana being, respectively, David Wright and Johan Santana again, and because R.A. Dickey has become, for the moment, a voodoo-pitched Tom Seaver.

Also because Collins is on the top step.

Two-hundred-forty-five games into his third big-league manager's job (his fourth counting the Orix Buffaloes of Japan's Pacific League), and his first in New York City, Collins was by now to have been exposed as too jumpy, too tightly wrapped. He was to have taken it all too personal. Instead, it seems, he has, well, mellowed. He understands. He loves. He cries. He celebrates without a dark fear that personal happiness and satisfaction will only further aggravate the game.

"All of it," he said while leaning on a dugout rail at Dodger Stadium. "It's all combined. When I played, I was a little guy. I had to play harder than anybody else on the field. I had to work harder. I wasn't blessed with great talent. I had to play harder. And when I coached, I had to coach harder. So, I always thought my teams had to play harder. And so I demanded it. When they didn't, and then weren't winning, I took it as a personal assault."

There was no single thunderbolt that tempered Terry Collins. Those who watched him in the field as the Dodgers' farm director and field coordinator, a position he held between managing the then-Anaheim Angels and Buffaloes, say he had uncanny touch with young and gifted ballplayers. They had what he didn't, and they were going where he hadn't, and all he wished for them was to get there with an idea of how to stay.

On a late afternoon in Las Vegas, Matt Kemp was getting there. He could be great, though maybe it wasn't going to be nearly as easy as Kemp believed. He was alone in the clubhouse of the Triple-A 51s, watching the Dodgers on television. The sun outside was mercilessly hot.

"Matt, what are you doing in here?" asked Collins, then the Dodgers' farm director and field coordinator.

"I'm watching my boys," Kemp said, nodding to the TV.

"No, no, no," Collins told him. "Your boys are out there taking infield. Get out there."

Kemp grabbed his glove and ran out of the clubhouse.

"Me and him," Kemp said with a laugh, "we had some good times and some bad times. He was always getting on me. It was a love-hate thing, but I think it was all love. I knew he was trying to make me a better baseball player."

Once a player of limited ability, Collins couldn't bear to watch so much go to waste. He'd see a lost at-bat, a lazy outfield route, and they'd sit down again and again going over every little mistake.

"One more," Crandall had told him, and Collins almost one-mored Matt Kemp to death.

"He was real – one of the first people to ever be hard on me," Kemp said. "We had so many conversations. I mean, he was hard on all of us. Some didn't respond to it. But, the ones who did, we were ready for this. … He wanted you to be perfect."

Kemp laughed at such a notion. Perfect doesn't come in baseball.

"Hey," he said, "he's good at what he does."

Collins is trying, anyway, trying not to be wed to the final score, or the record, or the standings. Trying not to wear it on his heart. It's hard. The Mets aren't perfect, in fact far from it. But, you know, they get after it, sometimes around and sometimes through their flaws. And sometimes they're sunk by them.

But Collins is able to take a young player by the collar, point to Wright and say, "You want to be a ballplayer? Do what he does." He's able to console a young pitcher with a story of how hard Santana worked to get back to that mound, or the story of Dickey and the will to stay with it over so many years. And look where it led.

It's a funny thing, this relationship between the Mets and Collins. Front office honchos Sandy Alderson and Paul DePodesta hired a manager they knew would not allow an inch of submissiveness. They put him in a clubhouse that had lost its way. And then they stood back.

"What we knew we wanted to do was change the personality and perception of the team," Alderson said, "one that was going through the motions to one playing the game right, that cared."

Said DePodesta: "Trust me, the intensity hasn't changed. The competitive desire to win every night hasn't changed."

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The Mets are 45-38, 4½ games behind the Washington Nationals in the NL East. The bullpen is lousy. There are better defenses, 14 in the National League alone. Yet, they generally play to the last out, which, granted, must happen if you've got a lousy bullpen. It reflects well on Collins. More, it reflects well on the Mets.

Whether he is fired amid back-page clamor or resigns with grace, when one day the Mets have had enough or he has, Collins said recently he would never chase another job like this.

He'll be done.

"This game, it needs energy," he said. "It's becoming a young man's game. And I support that totally."

Until then, he'll keep learning to love it – all of it. He'll try to enjoy the ride. If it's not always fair, well, he'll fight it, of course. But he'll remember what's important. Or try.

Watching Jose Reyes come out of that ballgame late last September, removing himself not for team or injury or some greater baseball good, should have put a hole in Collins' heart.

You know what Terry Collins might have given for those three or four big-league at-bats Reyes turned down? You know what a lot of guys would've?

Collins had spent his best years on the brink of the big leagues. A chance away. An injury away. A believer away. For heaven's sake, one stinkin' phone call from what Reyes ducked for .001 worth of batting average.

Some other time and place, maybe Collins would have been appalled, too. The man was built taut as bridge cable, after all, emotionally as well as physically. But more emotionally.

And then Reyes peels right at first base in order to preserve his batting title on his way out of New York, and Collins reacted in about the last way you might have expected.

He cried a little. Those tears, they were meant for Reyes, for Mets fans, for the other 24 men in that clubhouse. And maybe some for himself.

All Collins wanted at the very start of last season, his first with the Mets, was for every man in a Mets uniform to believe. Reyes believed. He always showed up, and he always believed.

So, when he came to Collins on the final day of the regular season and asked for a favor, one last favor as it turned out, who was Collins to refuse? Take your bunt hit, Collins told him. Take your batting title, he said. You earned it.

Collins would leave it at that. It would not chase him. It would not haunt him. He'd only be happy for Reyes and for the game and for all those who believed. Including himself.

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