When Terry Collins broke into professional baseball in 1971, there was no such thing as a designated hitter. There were no pitch counts or innings limits. Tommy John was a pitcher, not a surgery. John appeared in 38 games for the White Sox that season, without an inkling that he would be operated upon three years later in a procedure that would bear his name -- and become an epidemic among young pitchers such as Matt Harvey.

It all fits. The white-haired, 66-year-old Collins is the perfect guy to deal with Harvey and the rest of the Mets' stellar, young, handle-with-care rotation. He has been around long enough to let them know that this is going to work out, and that you never stop learning in this game, even after 44 years.

Tuesday night was another new episode. Collins had to start Logan Verrett rather than Jacob deGrom -- his best pitcher all year -- in the heart of a pennant race because deGrom had seemed fatigued lately. The manager has learned the value of sacrificing today for a bunch of tomorrows.

A sacrifice it was, a lackluster 6-2 loss to the Braves. Still, the Mets made progress, what with the Nationals losing. Collins has rolled with that kind of punch so well this season that there is talk he might be considered for National League Manager of the Year. He scoffed at that, saying that he knows guys who have won such awards and they seldom say, "Boy, I managed my [butt] off." He believes it is all about the players, as it was in 1971.

He comes from an era when "cripes" was an expletive. He broke in long, long before Tom Hanks' character in "A League of Their Own" said the immortal line, "There's no crying in baseball." The baseball lifer could not have dreamed that he would be around long enough to see Wilmer Flores break that rule.

Nothing in the 1970s prepared Collins to deal with having a player on the field who was sobbing over Twitter reports that he had been traded. There is no handbook for suddenly having to deal with the Harvey Rules, which, of course, are no rules at all, only a fluid set of guidelines that are hastily hammered out between management and an agent at the worst possible time.

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As Collins said Monday, "This is a different era and a different age . . . Things change and you have to change with them."

So there he was, having to watch Verrett allow four runs in the fifth. That was two days after Collins had to lift his ace, Harvey, after five dominant scoreless innings.

Things change. Who would have thought ballclubs would have mental strength coaches?

"It's easy for us old guys to say, 'Suck it up, go out there and throw strikes, change speeds,' '' he said. "But there is a different mentality."

Collins is more pragmatic and patient than he was in previous stints. Still, he refers to himself as "old school." You know it pained him to remove Jose Reyes from a game in the first inning four years ago so that Reyes could clinch a batting title. But it did reinforce his image as somebody who will go to bat for his players. And these Mets do play hard for Collins. They didn't give up early in the summer, when the offense was lifeless and the season looked hopeless.

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So maybe he did manage his butt off. Maybe not -- his decision to intentionally walk Nick Markakis in the fifth backfired.

"I'm going to get home and my wife is going to call me an idiot," Collins said.

Maybe he will be an award- winner. Maybe it's not a huge deal.

"Our players are playing good. That makes me a lot happier than anything else," he said, adding that five years of struggle in Queens will all be worthwhile "if we can finish this off."

He always adds an "if" because 44 years tell him it all can change tomorrow. For today, though, he is the right man at the right time.