David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
A year ago, the Mets expected Terry Collins to get them within playoff range. Maybe even a spot in the postseason despite a $100-million budget, Matt Harvey feeling his way back from Tommy John surgery and the Nationals still everyone’s pick to win the NL East.
So what did Collins’ team do? The best thing possible: The Mets under-promised and over-delivered by making it all the way to Game 5 of the World Series. In turn, Collins got a two-year contract extension, the adoration of the team’s fan base and one simple request from those fans as he heads into the 2016 season.StorySyndergaard to add intimidation to repertoireFacebookLike Newsday Sports on Facebook
Um, Terry, if it’s not too much trouble, do it again. But this time, we’d like the trophy, please.
To us, that’s pressure. One big Empire State Building-sized can of stress juice.
Last season, Collins did as good a job as he possibly could, overcoming key injuries and the relentless innings-limit headaches to claim the Mets’ first division title in almost a decade. Beating the Dodgers and Cubs in the playoffs was great stuff, too.
But this season presents a new challenge for Collins, the type he hasn’t seen in nearly two decades, since his managing stint with the Angels. After gradually climbing the developmental ladder, the Mets skipped a step in charging directly to the World Series. Now the only thing left is a ring, and that doesn’t happen just because you were there before.
Falling short of that would feel like failure, even though that shouldn’t be the case. It’s why we suggested to Collins during Thursday’s news conference that this season actually could be the hardest he’s faced despite having the most talent of his six-year Flushing tenure.
The manager refused to entertain that notion, though.
“Does anybody in this room think this is a tougher season than it was last year sitting in this chair?” Collins said. When the laughter subsided, he added, “I would have to disagree. I love expectations, by the way. I think they’re great.”
No one is suggesting that last season’s white-knuckle ride was easy. And Collins has to be overjoyed that he’s through with the days of using John Mayberry as his cleanup hitter. But he also understands that it’s nearly impossible to bank on a return trip to the World Series, given the two rounds of playoffs, plus maybe a wild-card game, that’s necessary to punch the ticket.
Since 1986, only four managers have returned to the World Series after losing it the previous year, the most recent being the Royals’ Ned Yost, whose team beat the Mets last October after falling to the Giants in 2014. The other three were more spread out: the Rangers’ Ron Washington (2010-11), the Braves’ Bobby Cox (1991-92) and the A’s Tony La Russa (1988-89).
Ideally, the focus should be on qualifying for the playoffs and then using that as the baseline for a title run. Collins knows that, and it certainly will be part of the spring training message to his team. But the Mets have whipped up such a tremendous feel-good vibe heading into the ’16 season — and deservedly so — that Collins can’t harness the runaway train.
With Jacob deGrom saying this week that he expects to win the World Series and Sandy Alderson’s optimism rising to unprecedented levels, the bar already is set very high for Collins this time around. That’s not to say he can’t reach it. He’s just going to have a ton of people constantly measuring how close he is — or how far away. Every lineup decision or strategic move is going to seem bigger, right from Opening Day in Kansas City, of all places.
Collins certainly sounds ready for his membership in that exclusive club of managers saddled with World Series expectations, such as Yost, Joe Maddon, Bruce Bochy, John Farrell and even Joe Girardi, whose pressure comes built in with the pinstripes. There’s no choice but to embrace it.
“This week, 30 managers are going to stand up and say, ‘We can win,’ ” he said. “But we know we can do this. We did it.”
And now he’s being asked to do it again.