Joining Fredi Gonzalez to shill for Terry Collins

Alan TruexSurfing the net, I encountered a New York Daily News story:  “Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez Shills for Mets’ Terry Collins.”

I like the integrity of that headline.  “Shilling” means to encourage someone to buy what you’re selling.  However, it may be a bit harsh here, as Gonzalez wasn’t trying to benefit himself.  He was “shilling” for a competitor.

Collins is in his 11th season as a big-league manager and the finale of a 5-year contract as manager of the Mets.  He has no security beyond baseball’s postseason, which begins for him on Friday in Los Angeles, where the Mets begin a best-of-5 with the Dodgers.

The Mets started the season 14-4, but when they drifted from contention, media speculation in Media City had Collins being fired at the All-Star break.  There seemed little chance of a postseason, which the franchise hadn’t experienced since 2006 and he had not experienced since he was born, 66 years ago.

Their lineup was ravaged by injuries, some routine but long-lasting (Lucas Duda’s hamstring, Daniel Murphy’s strained quadriceps, Michael Cuddyer’s sprained knee), some dramatic (fractured hand of slugging catcher Travis D’Arnaud, Tommy John surgery for starting pitcher Zack Wheeler).  And there were debilitating illnesses you rarely hear of, like third baseman David Wright’s lumbar spinal stenosis.

Amazingly, Collins pulled the Amazins together.  When media voices were calling for him to lash out at individuals for their miserable performances, he refused, citing instead the all-out effort of all his players.  He stayed calm and assured them they weren’t going to keep hitting.232 as a team.

As Murphy put it: “TC definitely kept things going in the right direction when it very easily could have gone off the rails.” 

As the team regained much of its health and general manager Sandy Alderson traded for a monstrous batter, Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets’ composite batting average rose to a semi-respectable .247 by season’s end.

Even so, Alderson has not offered Collins a contract extension, after publicly saying he came close to firing him a year ago.  So Gonzalez spoke up for Collins, saying Alderson should “do the right thing for TC.”

Let me join in shilling for TC, who managed the Houston Astros when I covered them for the local daily.  He deserves to be Manager of the Year while earning his first ticket to a postseason.  Not that I’m trying to influence the election.  The ballots are already in.

He had stout competition from Mike Matheny, whose St. Louis Cardinals won more often than any other  big-league team, despite casualties comparable to those of the Mets.  And masterful Joe Maddon nurtured the forever woeful Chicago Cubs into the playoffs.

But I think Collins got more out of his team than any other National League manager this year.  Are the Mets as talented overall as the Cardinals and Cubs?  Or for that matter, the Dodgers, Pirates or Nationals?

It takes extraordinary skill to skipper a New York baseball team, with holes in it, through choppy waters.  No one else this season has managed under such win-or-else pressure. 

Wise old Lou Piniella, who played for the Yankees and later managed them, once said, “New York is a great place to play, or manage.  But it’s not for everybody.  You need a thick skin or you can’t last there.”

I did not expect Collins to be more than three years in New York, even though his skin is plenty thick.  He lasted just three in Houston and LA, big markets but hardly the media center that is New York.  I thought his candor, wonderful for journalists who covered him, would grate on his players.  Surely tensions would be magnified by mega media.

But he’s improved his communication with players.  He’s learned to reach out with one-on-one conversation as well as motivational clubhouse speeches.  He’s avoided the screaming clubhouse rants that enlivened his tenure in Houston.

The challenge of managing in New York, Collins has noted, is that you’re constantly approached by reporters wanting to know things you haven’t yet told the players.  He deftly handled a testy issue when asked about transferring starting pitchers Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese to the bullpen as the playoffs approached.

“I haven’t talked to those guys,” Collins said.  “I don’t need them to go to their smart- phones and see that they’re going to the bullpen. . . .   But there’s a possibility we might alter some things.”

Thus he told the truth, while being as sensitive as possible to players’ feelings.

Collins is from Michigan, and there’s a Midwestern openness about him.  Because he’s accessible, quotable and honest, he’s popular with the ballwriters who vote for awards.  On five occasions he’s finished in the top six in Manager of the Year voting, including his final season in Houston.

As for his prospects this year, Collins said: “It’s always nice to get an award, but I am going to tell you what, it’s all about the players.”

Actually, it’s about making decisions that enhance the players’ opportunities to perform. He adroitly pieces together a lineup of mostly uncelebrated left-handed and right-handed batters — a lot of handy spare parts built around MVP candidate Cespedes.

Collins has long been respected for knowing how to play small ball but also for maximizing long-ball opportunities.  The Mets have seven players with double-digit home runs.

This club has to be taken seriously in the postseason because, with All-Star starter Carlos Martinez injured for St. Louis, Collins has the deepest and best 4-man rotation in MLB.   Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz are a combined 40-22.  On their good days they can be virtually untouchable.

The Mets also have a shutdown closer, Jeurys Familia (42 saves, 1.88 ERA).

Alas, the rest of the bullpen is a horror.  Collins has been slammed by some reporters for calling on the wrong relievers.  But usually there was no correct call to make, once Jenrry Mejia went out for 80 games with his second drug suspension and lights-out lefty Jerry Blevins suffered a fractured left forearm in April, after allowing no base runners in his eight appearances.

For overcoming all these – and other adversities — Collins deserves a contract extension.  Yesterday.  Today.

But maybe later will be better for him and the Mets.  I can see the team bonding even more, uniting in a cause to do what’s right for the old man.

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