David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
On Feb. 13, Fred Wilpon held court at the Mets' spring training complex. Saying that money no longer is a crippling concern, the principal owner even suggested that the Mets could be "big investors" in the coming free-agent market.
The very next morning, the Mets should have announced a contract extension for Terry Collins.
For a franchise that has relied on faith for the past few years -- practically begging for the trust of the team's restless fans and creditors -- it's about time for the Mets to return the favor. Collins is entering the final season of his contract and deserves at least the promise of managing the Mets when the front office expects them to be a competitive team again.
From the moment Sandy Alderson took over, and hired Collins shortly afterward, the GM has pointed to 2014 as the target. By then, the costly mistakes of the past administration would be flushed, the payroll would be stabilized and perhaps -- there were no guarantees back then -- the Madoff damage would be contained.
Through it all, Collins was supposed to play the role of caretaker, babysitter and tackling dummy for the media. He had to say the right things while Johan Santana disintegrated, Carlos Beltran was traded and Jose Reyes bolted.
The Mets averaged 751/2 wins in his first two seasons, and this year has the potential to be the worst of Collins' tenure because the club is just killing time until the future arrives.
When Alderson makes jokes about having no outfielders, whose fault is that? Collins doesn't put together the roster. He manages what the front office gives him, and he again is being asked to develop what Alderson is advertising as future stars.
If that's the plan, let Collins know now that he'll have the chance to manage these players at the major-league level rather than just groom them for someone else. Seems fair, and a just reward for time served.
But the Mets don't sound inclined to play it that way. One of the club's decision-makers said this week that it's "unlikely" that Collins will get a contract extension before the end of this season. If they had thought otherwise, the person explained, Collins already would have a new deal.
Some managers in Collins' situation might have a problem with that. He insists that is not the case.
"I got to tell you -- I'm fine," he said. "I'm very comfortable with the situation. I don't think it's a slap in the face at all. To be honest, we've had two good starts and two bad finishes. So I totally get it. I'm not bothered by it. I'm not nervous about it.
"If we play the way I think we're capable of playing, things will work out. If not, it's the nature of the beast. I have all the confidence in the world in the people that run this. I know they got a great plan and I hope I'm a part of it. If I'm not -- shoot -- that's the way it is."
Joe Maddon, one of the coaches on Collins' Angels staff in the late 1990s, was given a similar rebuilding assignment when he took over the Rays in 2006. In his first two years, Maddon went 61-101 and 66-96 before the Rays won the AL East title (97-65) and lost the World Series in 2008. In the past five seasons, Maddon has gone 458-352 (.565) and is a two-time Manager of the Year.
The Rays' stunning turnaround despite limited financial resources has to do with a lot more than Maddon. And we're not saying the same thing is going to happen in Flushing. But Collins should be given a turn with the Mets' developing talent, as Maddon was, and it would help the process to do it now rather than letting it become a distraction in the coming months. Collins has earned that chance in a very unforgiving environment.
"We're aware that it's the last year of Terry's contract," David Wright said, "but I think Terry has been around long enough that he won't allow that to affect the way he manages. In a perfect world, ideally, you want continuity -- whether it's with coaches, managers or the front office. Hopefully this is the start of a run where we can have that."
But it hasn't happened yet. Collins and the front office haven't said a word about a new contract since last season ended. And there's no plan to broach the subject anytime soon.
"I don't need to ask them," Collins said. "Both sides know where we are. I'm just going to do my job."