Willie Randolph was smiling, never happier to be in uniform again, if only for a time he knew was temporary. The name across his chest read USA, but he'd probably rather it had said Rockies, or Indians, or even Mets.
It's not as crazy as it sounds. If not for that knee-buckling curveball thrown by Adam Wainwright, the one that froze Carlos Beltran solid -- "vapor lock," Randolph called it the other day -- things might be different in Flushing.
A World Series alters the paths of careers, changes fortunes. Randolph, who served as Joe Torre's third-base coach before Team USA's elimination from the World Baseball Classic Friday night, wonders about that, even now. How could he not? With Beltran standing across the way at Marlins Park, waiting for his turn in the batting cage with Puerto Rico, and Carlos Delgado -- the team's batting coach -- a few feet away, those memories were tough to stifle.
Does that night still creep into his mind? That Wainwright curveball?
"Oh, of course," Randolph said. "Of course."
And the idea that he might be in a different place right now if not for one pitch?
"Exactly," Randolph said. "I might still be managing. No doubt about that. I'm not obsessive about it, but it took me a long time to get over that. I still think about that. I know that's the baseball gods. It happens that way sometimes.
"Carlos had a great year for me. He was one of my best players. He just got a hellacious curveball that he locked up on. Who knows?"
What Randolph knows now, almost seven years later, is that getting back into the managing game at the major-league level is going to be difficult. In his darker moments, away from the field, when he's not throwing batting practice or hitting fungoes, Randolph has to wonder if he'll ever get another chance.
The Astros called him during the offseason, but it was long after they had given the manager's job to Bo Porter, previously the Nationals' third-base coach, in September. The interview was for the bench coach job, something Randolph says he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about, but he figured he'd give it a shot. Eduardo Perez, the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez, got the job.
"I've been a mentor to Bo for a long time," Randolph said. "Bo wanted me to be on his staff, but what they're doing there, it didn't work out. I was disappointed."
Randolph said he and Porter had sort of an agreement. If one of them got a manager's job, he would pick the other for his staff. With the Astros, however, it didn't work out that way, and Randolph was puzzled as to why the team made him interview for the position rather than letting Porter pick his own staff.
That's the new reality for an old-school Yankee like Randolph. It's a different game now, with the front office exercising more control over every aspect of the organization. More and more, teams are run according to a corporate business model, with general managers toting Ivy League degrees.
Randolph's passion for baseball and wealth of experience are obvious strengths. But in this new world, hard numbers trump those intangible qualities every time, and Randolph, 58, realizes that he's stuck in the crossfire of these two camps. What he brings to the table just doesn't seem quite as important anymore.
"I don't think it comes secondary," Randolph said. "But I think what happens is that the people in charge, that are running things, they have different ideas and they don't put as much emphasis on that. Obviously, sabermetrics is really big, and I'm not married to it per se, but I think there's a happy medium there in the preparation for the game."
Here's another issue: Randolph, a longtime favorite of George Steinbrenner, made his name during the 1970s and '80s, right before that generation's Yankees dynasty fell. He's dealing with some front-office executives now who, at the height of Randolph's playing career, weren't out of kindergarten.
"I see a lot of these young guys, I don't think they even know who I am," Randolph said. "Not that you have to have played the game. Don't get me wrong. They just earned their chops through statistical analysis or scouting."
Where does a manager fit into the new schematic? It depends. In Houston, where the plan is to build from the ground up with young players, there is a premium placed on education and development. Other teams, such as Washington, wanted a manager who could command respect with his presence alone, and the Nationals, now a World Series contender, found their perfect candidate in Davey Johnson.
Before Randolph was hired by the Mets, the knock against him always had been his lack of managerial experience at any level. Randolph figured his Yankees pedigree, and long tenure on their major-league coaching staff, was enough of a qualification.
He was right about one thing: Teams do not seem as hung up on the whole previous manager thing anymore. In addition to Randolph's former colleagues, Joe Girardi and Don Mattingly, more recent hires such as Robin Ventura (White Sox), Walt Weiss (Rockies), Kirk Gibson (Diamondbacks) and Mike Matheny (Cardinals) have backed up Randolph's assertion.
"I understand the criteria has changed, don't you think?" Randolph said. "When I got the shot, I proved it wasn't necessary because I was successful. I have the second-highest winning percentage of any Met manager besides Davey Johnson . Once you have a taste of managing your own team, and get to within one pitch of going to the World Series, you feel like you're ready to do that."
It's why he remains focused on a manager's job at the major-league level and is less interested in returning as a coach, as he did with the Brewers and Orioles after his firing by the Mets. But he hasn't had any "serious interviews" about a manager's opening since he left Flushing and he's about to begin his second season out of baseball.
"I still burn to manage," Randolph said. "I hope I get another shot."
100 - Games suspended for the Tigers’ Cesar Carillo, who became the first player to take the hit from MLB for his involvement with Biogenesis. Carillo, as a minor-leaguer, is not protected by the powerful union. Also doesn’t have $275 million for a PR firm.
39 - Years since Dr. Frank Jobe performed the first Tommy John surgery on, well, a Dodgers pitcher named Tommy John. Jobe will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. What goes in the Hall? His scalpel? His beeper?
20 - Career wins, for six teams over nine major-league seasons, for Nelson Figueroa, who eliminated Team USA with six scoreless innings. “I don’t throw very hard,” said Figueroa, a former Met. Fortunately for him, the Americans didn’t hit hard at the WBC, either.
4 - Years, and $28.3 million, committed by Brewers to Carlos Gomez, one of four players in the Johan Santana deal. Not long ago, Gomez was supposed to anchor a projected Mets outfield that included Carlos Beltran and Fernando Martinez. Ah, memories.
1 - Double allowed by Braves’ closer Craig Kimbrel in 63 appearances last season, a total of 62 2/3 innings. Nelson Cruz hit his first pitch for a double to start Thursday’s winning rally against the U.S. The next Mariano Rivera? Let’s see in another decade or so.