CROSSFIRE: Media sent mixed signals on Randolph situation

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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Mets management might want to think of its critics, who all

week hurled charges of cowardice and villainy in the Willie Randolph affair,

the way playwright Eugene O'Neill did: "I love every bone in their heads."

There certainly was no shortage of numbskullian outrage from many among the

same chattering classes who for weeks had been calling for Randolph's

dismissal. That Mets general manager Omar Minaya proved to be anything but

nimble in sending Randolph packing - first literally, to the West Coast, then

figuratively - was obvious enough. But the act of firing a boss for his

employees' underperformance hardly reached the level of "spinelessness" and

"bullying" widely ascribed to it.

The deed was not done via e-mail after 3 a.m., as many reports had it.

(Minaya delivered the blow face-to-face when the Anaheim clocks had not yet

struck midnight; it's just that reporters were informed of the move

electronically and referenced Eastern time.)

"I don't think it was cowardly," said Randy Cohen, who considers questions

of morality and principle for National Public Radio and the New York Times

Magazine as "The Ethicist."

In what sense?

"No one woke him up in the middle of the night. There was no slapping. If

it was less than ideal, it didn't seem brutal. [The Mets] seem to have made a

professional judgment. It was not as smooth and elegant as it might have been,

but they didn't fail by much. Being imperfect is not being unethical."

To Duke University cultural anthropologist Orin Starn, a keen observer of

the sports universe, Randolph's termination of employment not only was very

21st-century American, it was downright Biblical.

"It's part of mainline anthropology: the idea of the scapegoat," Starn

said. "The word comes from the ancient Israelis, when the priest would lay

hands on a goat and put all pains and troubles and sickness of the time into

the goat, who'd then be sent into the wilderness to be eaten by lions."

Straight from Leviticus and with roots in Yom Kippur ceremonies. "By making

a sacrificial victim, by expelling somebody from the Garden of Eden, expelling

him from his job, you make everything right again, make possible the idea of a

new order," Starn said.

With the team sandbagging against the rising floods of mediocrity, in the

face of playoff expectations, sending Randolph into the baseball wilderness

logically "fits with the America of the instant fix and CEO performance thing,"

Starn said. "If you don't get the job done, you're out. Those old guarantees

of lifetime employment and a pension don't apply to anybody anymore."

Where so much of the commentary on Randolph's treatment seemed to be at

cross purposes was in the cries of injustice following so closely on the heels

of salivating talk radio and tabloid death watches.

It was Will Leitch, the snarkily observant Deadspin.com blogger, who wrote

in New York magazine earlier this month that "for sports fans, collapses are

much more fun than victories ... There's something delightfully retro and

charming about the hunt for Randolph's hide."

Leitch reasoned that "our teams are extensions of ourselves and, when they

fail, we fail ... To hate your coach is to love your team."

Ethicist Cohen saw "no blood on anybody's hands" in that scenario because

"speculation about how to correct the team" came with Randolph's public job

description. "Within the bounds of ordinary courtesy, [Randolph's] emotional

well-being is not the concern of the fans," Cohen said. "It's the concern of

his family and his friends and his therapist."

As a figure in the professional entertainment business, Randolph reasonably

is "remote," on the human level, from those judging his performance.

"It's certainly true," Cohen said, "that when you go to the movies,

villains are more interesting than heroes, and tragedies are much more engaging

than successes. What's to say about success? Nice going? So failure is more

interesting in every way, because the outcome is still in doubt: How will we

reverse this? We're headed for the rocks, and people's characters will reveal

themselves."

That Randolph suddenly became a sympathetic character no doubt was the

result of Minaya's Kabuki theater, the bizarre path taken to confronting

Randolph while Mets ownership stayed out of sight. Starn submitted that there

might be "some racial angst, this unspoken subtext that this is an

African-American guy who was known as a good guy, played by the rules, loved

baseball and now was getting the shaft."

Except, of course, Minaya is a minority himself, a man of color with Latino

roots, and Randolph's replacement, Jerry Manuel, also is black.

Which may leave us with very little to be critical about. "If everything

were always going well," Leitch added via e-mail to Newsday, "fans would be

bored and talk radio would be silent. Unless, of course, we're Boston. Which,

fortunately, we're not."