The seven-year tenure of Terry Collins was ticking down to what is almost certain to be its final days when the Mets’ manager was asked to name his most memorable games at Citi Field.
Collins picked two.
The Mets lost both of them.
And therein lies the complicated legacy of Collins, who managed more games than anyone in franchise history (1,134) but is not the all-time victory leader. Davey Johnson, the chief of the beloved ’86 champs, has him by fewer than 50 wins.
Like most managers on the way out, Collins was everything the Mets wanted him to be — until he wasn’t. Loyal soldier, media darling, a grandfatherly figure for the team’s next generation. But when the expiration date arrives, the good memories tend to get stripped away, the flaws trumpeted, and Collins is no different in that respect.
As for anyone who believes Collins was a straight-up liability to the Mets, that the team would have won more with another manager in his chair, history suggests otherwise. Fact is, Collins is one of just five to even get the Mets to a World Series in the club’s 55-year existence.
Johnson and Gil Hodges are the only two to win championship rings. Yogi Berra lost to the A’s in seven games in 1973. And Bobby Valentine, a Flushing folk hero, lost the 2000 Subway Series matchup to the despised Yankees in five games. Collins? he’ll go down as the perfect scapegoat for the Mets’ inability to knock off the superior Royals in 2015.
His crime? Trusting Matt Harvey too much in Game 5. So ultimately, the manager roundly criticized for abusing the Mets’ bullpen, especially toward the end of his Flushing stay, will live in infamy for the time he didn’t use it. And yet, that November night stands out to Collins as one of his most special at Citi Field, despite everyone connected to the Mets wishing that it never happened.
“Game 5 will be with forever,” Collins said before his Flushing finale. “The frustration, the tremendous excitement that was in the air here.”
The latest evidence, revealed this week by Newsday’s Marc Carig, points to Collins overstaying his welcome with the Mets, citing the frayed lines of communication between him and GM Sandy Alderson, and only the intervention of principal owner Fred Wilpon ensuring that Collins would stick until season’s end. After the first few seasons of the franchise rebuild, Collins probably could have been fired any number of times — it did take him five years to finish with a winning record, an unusually long leash for a big-market team.
But don’t blame Collins for surviving. And the Mets, for whatever gripes they spouted, obviously valued having Collins out front, facing the microphones and cameras, trying to extinguish the fires the front office preferred to watch from a safer distance. If there was a particularly embarrassing defeat, the grumpy Collins was there for the postgame sound bite, ranting along with the SNY audience. In those triumphant moments, Collins was the smiling grandpa, sharing a spontaneous joy that, for the Mets’ paranoid fan base, always feels like it could be stolen from them at any second.
On some occasions, Collins was both, such as June 1, 2012: the night Johan Santana threw the Mets’ first no-hitter. There was Santana, the team’s $137.5-million ace, finally delivering that long elusive gem for the franchise, but doing it in his first season back from shoulder surgery. Afterward, Collins tortured himself for allowing Santana to reach 134 pitches, and fought back tears in speaking with the media about the decision. To this day, he’s still bothered by it.
In some ways, Collins was the most Met of Mets managers. Hired at 61, given his fourth chance after cratering in the first three, 11 years after his last top job. Like many of the youngsters that would be under his tutelage, Collins came up from the Mets’ spring-training facility in Port St. Lucie, where he had been the minor-league field coordinator.
When Alderson announced his hire, we pictured Collins in a custodial role, overseeing the Mets’ reconstruction for two, maybe three years. Once the franchise got back on its feet, and was ready to contend again, Collins would be replaced by a manager more familiar with Alderson’s Moneyball style. Collins, it seemed, was pegged to be the bridge to brighter days.
“From a personal standpoint, I think that we were not looking for someone who was an extension of us,” Alderson said back then. “We were looking for someone who was going to be complementary to us. I think he’ll bring a very distinct element to our group.”
Collins definitely provided that. He was the polar opposite of the stoic Alderson, and as an underdog managing an underdog franchise, the old-school Collins was easy to root for from the start, all the way to the 2015 World Series. But as the Mets crumbled under the suffocating weight of their multiplying medical issues, and the shine of that Series eventually wore off, Collins’ missteps — the same ones seemingly shrugged off before — grew to become fatal obstacles. Regardless of where the fault belonged, there would be no escaping the fallout from a 90-loss season this time.
This was the year many believed the Mets would win the World Series, and Collins, in the team’s view, was still the manager to finish the job. Instead, it will be on record as the worst season of Collins’ Mets career, and very likely his last.
Looking back, the other Citi Field game that Collins singled out as particularly memorable was his Flushing debut, on April 8, 2011, a 6-2 loss to the Nationals. The Mets went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position, and dropped their third straight.
“I’m a long way from being frustrated,” Collins said that day.
It took a while. Seven years, to be exact. But Collins eventually got there, as did the Mets.