The imperfect union began nearly seven years ago, with the Mets in need of someone willing to enter the wilderness. There would be no winning, at least at the beginning, and there would be no guarantee of seeing the light at the end.
The only certainty would be a constant give-and-take that persists to this day, part of the dynamic that general manager Sandy Alderson envisioned as he scoured the opposite end of the baseball spectrum to find a manager. He wanted somebody with his own convictions, his own world view, not a yes man.
That search in 2010 yielded Terry Collins, and since that time, he and Alderson have had their clashes. Whether over playing time or bullpen management, such conflict was predictable. Less apparent has been the enduring nature of an improbable arrangement that often has been contentious.
“A lot of times, I have to remind Sandy when there’s a disconnect, ‘Hey, this is what we want,’ ” assistant general manager John Ricco said recently. “And the result has been the longest-tenured manager in the organization’s history and a trip to the World Series. So obviously, that approach has been beneficial.”
On Saturday night, Collins managed his 1,013th game for the Mets, passing Davey Johnson, who led the franchise to a world championship in 1986.
Collins has yet to reach such heights. He came close in 2015, reaching the World Series in his fifth season at the helm and the first winning season on his watch. In 2016, the Mets surged in the second half, only to get bounced in the wild-card game.
Even in the best of times, Collins has made himself a target of criticism, with his in-game decisions drawing scrutiny from fans and the front office. Despite joining Bobby Valentine as the only Mets managers to lead the club to consecutive postseason appearances, Collins has lost more games here (514) than he has won (498).
Nevertheless, he has endured in the cauldron that is New York, a testament in part to the relationships he has worked to foster through the years.
“I didn’t know how long I was going to last,” Collins said during a season fraught with tension because the Mets have scuffled despite grand expectations. “The only thing I knew is that I was going to try to enjoy it more. And I have.”
‘IT COMES WITH THE TERRITORY’
Communication — or lack thereof — had gotten Collins run out of two towns. First with the Astros and later with the Angels, he proved too hotheaded and too tightly wound to connect with his players or anyone else. It would be more than a decade before he got his next chance with the Mets.
Collins resolved not to repeat his mistakes. Even now, he admits that openness does not come naturally. It requires preparation. So before night games, he arrives at the ballpark about eight hours before first pitch. He knows that through the course of the day, this is the only time he’ll have for himself.
“I want two hours to myself,” he said. “It’s something you have to work at because this is a unique place.”
By about 11 a.m., Collins usually is at the ballpark working out, his way of combating the daily stress of his job. He’ll turn 68 next Saturday, though he looks as if he’s barely rounded 60. He regularly lifts weights and runs on the treadmill. Aside from when he’s managing games, this is the only time he won’t answer his phone.
By 1:30 p.m., Collins has showered, eaten lunch and given his starting lineup some thought. Mentally, he has braced for the parade of humanity that will greet him all the way until first pitch.
Coaches and players often begin the daily procession, one in which Collins will be pulled in every direction. Later, he will conduct his daily pregame news conference. In an era in which many managers keep the media at arm’s length, it’s not unusual for him to hold additional informal briefings, a holdover from the lean times early in his tenure.
“The early years, we knew he was going to be overseeing a real young team. It was going to be a tear-down,” Ricco said. “Getting through those years, his experience, his patience, his ability to communicate to fans through the media, he did a real ly nice job of that.”
A typical day also might include a chat with Alderson or chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon. In the manager’s office before home games, it’s not unusual for owner Fred Wilpon to have a word. The Mets ultimately are a family business, and Collins’ door is always open.
“Fred’s here and wants to know things, Jeff wants to know things, I’ve got media relations people who want to know things,” Collins said. “It’s all day long, every day, and you’ve got to realize that it comes with the territory here. And if you don’t want to do it, this is not a good place.”
‘NOT GOING TO BE . . . KUMBAYA’
Of course, Collins has found a way to make it into a good place, even though his strengths as a manager tend to be the least visible. It’s with people that he’s at his best, and in baseball, most of those interactions take place out of the public eye.
Curtis Granderson has played for both Collins and his mentor, Jim Leyland. The veteran outfielder sees a shared philosophy that has played well in the clubhouse.
“He’s going to set forth what he wants,” Granderson said. “And it’s ‘you guys go execute it.’ He kind of does that. He lets us play.”
In turn, Alderson ultimately lets Collins manage. Contrary to longstanding public perception, the two have hashed out clear areas of responsibility. Despite the inclination to blur those boundaries, they remain clear. It is Collins who calls the shots on the field, no matter the grumbling that might come from the front office.
“One of the things we do is to provide information,” Alderson said. “His responsibility is to take that information and digest it — and then do what he wants.”
Alderson prefers decisions that he calls “information-driven.” Collins freely admits, “Sometimes you go on your gut.” It’s not uncommon for those ideas to clash.
On May 9 against the Giants, Collins used his best relievers late in a game that the Mets won, 6-1. When Michael Conforto homered to open a five-run lead in the seventh, the Mets’ win probability reached 99 percent, and it appeared as if a taxed bullpen finally might get a break. But Collins took no chances, using Jerry Blevins, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia to finish off the game. Within the front office, there was consternation.
The Mets lost their next seven, with a weary bullpen absorbing a big blow when Familia had blood-clot surgery that could sideline him for the rest of the season. It was yet another storm to endure for the Mets, another test of the imperfect union, another part of a cycle that has played out over the last 6 1⁄2 years.
“When you start to get into it, there is going to be that push and pull,” Ricco said. “So it’s not going to be a ‘hey, kumbaya, we’re all on the same page’ thing. It’s a constant, almost on a daily basis, ‘you see it this way, I see it this way, we’ve got to come to some kind of an agreement.’ ”
Mets history has featured few kumbaya moments, particularly when it comes to GMs and their managers. Frank Cashen, architect of the 1986 championship team, feuded with Johnson. A generation later, Steve Phillips engaged in open warfare with Valentine, their conflicts frequently spilling out into the media.
But despite the turbulence along the way, a desire for stability and a common understanding seem to have bound Alderson and Collins.
Said Alderson: “We work through it for the good of the team and recognize that nobody’s ever right all the time — about anything.”
Said Collins: “I will never profess to have all the answers like a lot of people think they have. I do not.”
‘WORTH ALL OF THE WORK’
During Collins’ exile from the big leagues, competition is what he missed the most. It sustains him still. In his time with the Mets, he has managed a Cy Young Award winner in R.A. Dickey and a batting champion in Jose Reyes and has seen Johan Santana throw the only no-hitter in the history of the franchise.
But major-league travel schedules are unrelenting. Some days, Collins must fight to preserve his own time to decompress.
“There’s a lot of times I’ve gone on the treadmill and looked down and I’ve run for two minutes and I’m done, I’ve got to go,” he said.
Yet as he finishes off the last year of his contract, Collins remains up for the challenge. Though the possibility of retirement looms, he hasn’t made any definitive statements about his future. He remains too occupied by his present to dive deep into the past.
“I don’t ever look and say, ‘Boy, I’m proud of the way I handled myself,’ ” Collins said. “You know what, I made a decision to change my personality when I came here and tried to do things differently. I think for the most part, it’s worked.”
Of all the major holidays, only Thanksgiving carries any weight in his house. He barely acknowledges his birthday. As his latest milestone approached, Collins insisted he had no plans to celebrate the longest managerial tenure in Mets history, and perhaps the most improbable.
“He’s adapted to the New York environment, which is not an easy task when it comes to the demands of the fans and the media,” Alderson said. “Through all that period of time, he’s maintained positive relationships with his players. We’ve been able to work well with him through the front office. He’s done an excellent job.”
Whenever Collins walks away from the game, it will be with the satisfaction of surviving long enough to see the light at the end of the darkness when few believed it would be possible. It happened in 2015, when the Mets clinched the NL East title in Cincinnati and Collins spent part of the wild celebration spraying fans in the front row with champagne.
“That was worth all of the work, and all of the other things, to know that you finally got to where you wanted to get to, to reach the postseason, to win the division,” he said. “I’ll remember that forever.”