Cooperstown Confidential: The Mets’ managerial menagerieby Bruce Markusen
September 24, 2010
Sometimes a franchise just has to change the manager. That is the scenario that the New York Mets are facing in the dwindling days of their lackluster 2010 season.
An argument could be made that Jerry Manuel has done a passable job as the team’s manager. The Mets are on pace to finish a few games under .500, which is in line with the consensus of preseason prognosticators. Their pitching has been better than expected, their offense has been worse, and it has all evened out in the Flushing, Queens wash.
From a distance, Manuel’s job could be considered safe. But that is not the internal reality. The vast majority of Mets fans and media expect that Manuel will be fired at season’s end, a sentiment that has not been denied by Mets management or ownership. Mets fans believe that the franchise has become mired in mediocrity. They see the same baserunning mistakes, the same inability to throw strikes, the same inability to play the game smartly, the same lack of leadership from the dugout.
Although he is always quotable, Manuel never gets angry at his players. It’s almost as if he accepts the Mets for what they are—an average team that is incapable of overachieving—and that is never the kind of attitude that a manager should have.
With Manuel’s job status a foregone conclusion, the Mets will be facing a huge decision that will determine their direction the next two to three seasons. Who will be hired next? Who can have more success than Manuel, Willie Randolph and Art Howe? And will that decision be made by the new general manager (whoever that is) or by ownership?
As of this writing, I see eight potential candidates to succeed Manuel. Let’s present them in order of the odds that they will be hired, starting with the long shots and finishing with the favorites.
Davey Johnson: He would be a popular choice among older Mets fans, based largely on his connection to the Mets of the late 1980s, particularly the pinnacle season of 1986. An accomplished manager who has won 56 per cent of his games, Johnson is exceedingly smart, knows how to use his 25-man roster, and would bring a level of instant credibility to the dugout that has been missing in Manuel.
In reality, I think the chances of the Mets tabbing Johnson now are exceedingly remote. After all, he hasn’t managed in the major leagues for 10 years, and hasn’t managed the Mets in 20. He has few connections remaining within the organization, while also lacking the kind of intensity and discipline that the Mets will probably want from Manuel’s successor.
As good a career as Johnson has had, first as an underrated power-hitting second baseman and then as an understated manager, he is the longest of longshots to become the next Mets skipper.
Bobby Valentine: He knows more about the game than just about anybody, is a daring innovator and a strong motivator, and has the kind of outgoing personality that is perfectly suited for the New York spotlight. Given those traits, the Mets would be foolish not to at least consider the prospect of a Valentine sequel.
Here’s the reality: Although Bobby V. has a brilliant mind and the experience of managing in so many pennant races, his candidacy represents another pipe dream. Valentine will want big money on a long-term contract and more organizational power than Manuel and Randolph; I don’t see the Mets’ dysfunctional front office conceding on either point. I’d be shocked if the Mets were willing to bring back Valentine, given their thrifty ways and lack of institutional accountability.
Howard Johnson: Of the Mets’ current coaches, HoJo is the only one who will be considered, and even that figures to be passing interest. (I don’t think that base coach Chip Hale will receive a look.) Frankly, I’ve never understood what the Mets see in Johnson as a managerial candidate. As a player, he was blessed with an athletic combination of speed and power, but was not strong in the fundamentals and was never regarded as a thinking man‘s ballplayer.
HoJo’s youth and name value as an ex-Met standout will help him in some circles, but he’s had a checkered career as a minor league coach, including a suspension at Double-A Binghamton, and in the majors, where the 2010 Mets have flailed badly under his leadership as hitting coach. Perhaps Johnson will fool me, but I’d proceed with caution before offering him the managerial reins. I think the Mets will take the same approach.
Ken Oberkfell: Currently the manager of the Mets’ Triple-A franchise in Buffalo, Oberkfell has quietly worked his way up the organizational ladder. A minor league manager since 1995, he has forged a record just under .500, culminating in his selection as Baseball America's minor league manager of the year in 2005.
He’s a diligent and hard worker who has the patience to develop young players, but lacks the fire-and-brimstone gene the Mets would prefer from their next manager. Then there’s his connection to the rival Cardinals, which really shouldn’t matter, but will be brought up by critics obsessed with the new manager having a tangible connection to the Mets’ past.
In many ways, Oberkfell deserves this job. He has paid his dues and enjoyed success along the way. It’s simply a question of the Mets being willing to overlook his lack of a headline name or personality. My guess is they will not.
Joe Torre: In reaction to Manuel’s protestation, Torre has tried to withdraw his name as a candidate, but I believe he will listen if the Mets call. Torre, who loves New York, would like nothing better than to engineer a Mets turnaround while rubbing the Yankees' nostrils in the infield dirt. From the Mets’ perspective, Torre carries the biggest name value, a factor that can’t be overlooked given the current opinion most Mets fans have of the franchise.
Here’s the problem: The Mets are unlikely to make an offer, knowing that Torre will demand somewhere in the range of $5 million to $8 million per season. That is too rich for the Mets, who remain payroll conscious in the post-Madoff world.
Lee Mazzilli: I’ve long contended that Mazzilli doesn’t receive enough respect for his intelligence because of his thick New York accent. Well, Maz is much more intelligent than he’s given credit for, knows the rule book better than most managers, and has some familiarity with the organization from his days as an analyst with SNY, the Mets’ flagship station. He also carries name value for Mets fans who are 40 and older; they remember his status as one of the few bright spots during the franchise’s lost years of the late 1970s.
On the down side, Maz earned only lukewarm reviews for his first managerial tenure in Baltimore. If the Mets hire him now, he will come into the job as a retread manager, something that the New York media will remind us about again and again. But in retrospect, Mazzilli’s managerial numbers with the Orioles do not appear so unfavorable. He won 48 per cent of his games over two seasons, a better winning percentage than both his predecessor (Mike Hargrove) and his successor (Sam Perlozzo).
Bob Melvin: Like HoJo's, Melvin’s candidacy is a head scratcher. Other than one season in Seattle and one in Arizona, Melvin has had little success as a big league manager. His young Diamondbacks players did not develop under his leadership; what makes the Mets think that Josh Thole, Ike Davis, Fernando Martinez, Jon Niese and Jennry Mejia would develop any more substantially under Melvin’s watch in New York? Then there is Melvin’s personality. He is quiet and passive, much like Howe, who struggled badly to meet the demands of the New York media and fan base.
In spite of all these potential negatives, Melvin remains under serious consideration. The Mets like his work as a scout, regard him as a sound baseball adviser, and feel that he would bring a stable voice to the clubhouse and dugout.
Wally Backman: There is a serious misconceptions about Backman, who has been portrayed as a maniacal psychopath incapable of relating to today’s player. In reality, most of Backman’s players love to play for him, appreciating his old-school intensity and passion for the game.
Smart and tough, Backman is an excellent motivator who has won at every stop in the minor leagues, except for one failed season with the Joliet Jackhammers. He also brings back nostalgic memories of 1986, a public relations plus that will help the Mets sell him to their fan base. As an added bonus, he figures to work cheaply, simply because he is so hungry to prove his mettle as a major league manager.
If there is a problem with Backman, it is his powder-keg temper, which has put him at odds with minor league umpires. He would have to tone down his baiting of major league arbiters, who are not known for their willingness to turn the other cheek.
The Mets also have concerns over his past history of spousal abuse, which cost Backman his first managerial job in Arizona, and his bout with bankruptcy. The Mets don’t need any more legal problems involving their staff, especially in light of the ongoing Francisco Rodriguez saga. He could be as risky as a stick of exposed dynamite, one that might ignite and explode under the spotlight of the New York media.
Backman carries the biggest peril of the candidates, but he also brings the most daring and exciting elements of all the choices. Ultimately, I think the Mets will take the chance on Backman. If his minor league success can translate favorably to the atmosphere at Citi Field, the Mets may have their best manager since Bobby V.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.