Collins unlikely to survive a fifth straight losing season

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Updated Thursday, July 2, 2015      

When you read a newspaper story that says a manager is not in trouble, you know he’s in trouble.  There’s a pattern.  A team has a bad month.  Reporters must explain why.  Inevitably, they question if the manager is using the right lineup, pulling starting pitchers too soon or too late, not stealing enough or bunting enough.

Or maybe he’s not “relating” to his players.  He’s too soft or too tough.

So when I see headlines like “Terry Collins’ job not in danger” and “Collins is safe from being fired, say team officials,” I know the New York Mets’ manager is feeling heat.  If he weren’t, there would be no need to deny it.

Actually, the heat has been on and off Collins throughout his 4 ½ seasons as manager of the Mets.  But he’s been saved by timely turnarounds.  After losing eight straight games, the Mets suddenly reversed the slide and won four games in a row.

Collins, baseball’s oldest manager at 66, may have had something to do with the uptick.  He did what in years past he couldn’t do: keep cool. 

He called a meeting to tell his players to relax.  To reporters he said:  “Who do you want me to yell at – the nine rookies?  The veterans who are playing as hard as any veteran in this league?”

By standing by his players, Collins helped them relax.  He also got a most welcome boost from a 24-year-old pitcher, Steven Matz, making a stunning major league debut.

Matz, who allowed two runs in 7 2/3 innings and went 3-for-3 at the plate, is from Stony Brook, Long Island.  He has the potential of being a home-town hero who could galvanize fan support for the Mets and extend the tenure of the manager.

Which I would like to see.  Having covered major league baseball as a newspaper beat for a couple of decades, I enjoyed spending time with a few very fine and engaging managers – Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella, Phil Garner, Art Howe, to name-drop a few.

Collins was the most candid.  He once told me, “I don’t know anything about pitchers.”  He was honest to a fault, which probably cost him his job running the Houston Astros in the mid-1990s.  Though hardly an intimidating presence at 5-9, 155 pounds, he confronted players who loafed and pitchers who wanted out of games when the pressure was on.  

There were times when reporters standing in the hallway outside the clubhouse could hear Collins berating his team.

His fiery style did not make for a happy clubhouse.  He would be so upset with his players that at times you wondered if he even liked them.

In his next big-league gig, in Anaheim, there was more of the same situation.  The reporters loved him because he was so honest, but the players did not always appreciate his blunt, intense manner.  He had two winning seasons, but when the third one didn’t go well, he was fired.

When he was hired by the Mets in 2011, I would have bet he would not last more than a year or two.  The relentless New York media would be baiting him endlessly, and he would not be able to resist saying things that would offend his players.

But I was wrong.  Collins by then had learned that, as he put it, “a manager has to get along with his star players.  I made sure I had a good relationship with the main guys.”

So he has endured four losing seasons with the Mets—actually a remarkable achievement, given the demands of the New York fan base, a sense of entitlement to winning.

In April this looked like it could be the Mets’ year.  They sped to a 14-4 start as if they were going to run away with the National League East.

But after that they went back to being Mets.  

Besides an unfortunate run of injuries, Collins sees the main problem as players being unsettled by mistakes.  “You’ve got to get them to refocus,” he said.  “You have to worry about what’s going to happen next.  You can’t take your bat to the field.”

When losses mount, players become more desperate, swinging at pitches off the plate, swinging at fences, losing patience.

One of Collins’ strengths as a manager is an ability to energize a team, with his aggressive base-running strategy as well as with his passionate talks.  But it’s more difficult for him to soothe, to be a voice of serenity.

Sometimes the anger flashes again.  When the Mets followed their 4-game win streak by getting shut out in back to back games by the Chicago Cubs, Collins dropped in F-bomb in his postgame media conference.  His face reddening, he said he didn’t give an F “whether it’s the Cubs or the New York City College.”

What frustrates Collins is a team batting average that’s the worst in the league: .232. 

But he does have what is most cherished by a manager, starting pitching.  The Mets’ rotation is solid throughout.  Collins defied conventional wisdom by stretching it to six in order to lessen the strain on the arms of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Bartolo Colon, Noah Syndergaard, Jon Niese, and now Matz.

“We can keep pitching great,” Collins said, “but we gotta get some offense.”

It sounded like a plea to general manager Sandy Alderson to acquire some bats.  But Alderson so far has not been active or supportive.  Collins is in the final year of his contract, and Alderson is on record saying he came very close to firing him last year.

Newsday wrote that if the offense doesn’t turn around, Collins could be fired during the All-Star break, even though “it’s not his fault.”

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