The Washington Times - June 28, 2008, 03:04AM

June 28, 2008

Ohhhh Willie Willie Willie. Ohhhh Willie Willie Willie. Ohhhh Willie Willie Willie.

That was Omar Minaya doing his best Ted Knight impression, hoping, praying almost that Willie Randolph, whom he hired, would reel his talented New York Mets team back in and claim what was rightfully theirs: First place in the N.L. East. And why not? The Mets were considered the most talented team in the league and were picked by many to represent the Senior Circuit in the World Series. They had made the biggest splash in the offseason by landing arguably the best pitcher in the majors, Johan Santana. They had a strong starting rotation, the best young third baseman in the National League, maybe the best leadoff hitter as well. But no. Old Willie Berube would not, could not come through this time. And just like that, ol’ Willie was gone.

It was not so long ago that Randolph was near the top of the coaching world. That was the case on September 13, 2007, as his team was a comfortable seven games up on the second-place Philadelphia Phillies with only 17 games left. He had signed a new multimillion dollar contract in the offseason. The previous year he had led the team to an N.L.-best 97 wins and within one game of the World Series. The next logical step was to the World Series and possibly a championship. Then Willie watched helplessly as it all slipped away. The Mets lost 12 of their next 17 games, suffering one of the worst collapses in baseball history as they lost their lead and eventually the division to the Phillies. Suddenly Willie, who had been chugging along at a good pace, was losing his steam.

Fast Forward to June 17, 2008. The Mets were 34-35 and 6 1/2 games behind the team they handed the division to the year before. Willie had officially lost his steam. A few hours after the Mets game ended - they actually beat the Angels that night in Anaheim - Randolph, along with pitching coach Rick Peterson and first base coach Tom Nieto, were fired. In a truly bizarre turn of events, all three were informed of their firings by Minaya when they returned to the team hotel after holding their postgame press conferences. The official announcement was made at 12:12 Pacific Time - 3:12 a.m. in the Big Apple.

But despite Minaya’s odd handling of the situation - firing his manager in the wee hours of the morning 3,000 miles from home - the question remains: Was Randolph really to blame for the disappointing play of the Mets? Is Willie to blame for Carlos Delgado aging faster than an old banana left out in the sun, or the injuries to Pedro Martinez, Mosies Alou and Ryan Church? Is Willie to blame for the solid but altogether underwhelming play of All-Stars David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran? Probably not, but the fact is they blew a golden opportunity to make it to the World Series and followed that up by wallowing in their own demise for the first half of 2008. Someone was going to have to take the blame, and it was Randolph.

There is no denying that this team has talent. They are not a sub-500 team by any means, and they certainly have plenty of time to turn it around. But it was becoming clear that Randolph was never going to be able get over the 2007 collapse. He was never going to be able to fully win back a team whose members still were shaking their heads in disbelief over what happened the year before. With each loss, the pressure only mounted, and thus the distance between Randolph and players grew bigger. Firing Randolph was an inevitable step in the healing process of a wounded franchise. The fans knew it, the media knew it - even Willie himself knew it. According to the New York Times, Willie had actually asked Minaya to fire him before the Mets’ West Coast swing:

“I actually asked him,” Randolph reportedly said. “I said: ‘Omar, do this now. If you’re going to do this, do this now. I know you’ve got a lot of pressure on you, but if I’m not the guy to lead this team, then don’t let me get on this plane.’ I did say that to him.”

So with the Willie drama in the rear-view mirror, Jerry Manuel will know take over the team as interim manager. Manuel, who had been with the Mets as the team’s bench coach since 2006, also coached the Chicago White Sox from 1998 to 2003 and was honored as American League manager of the Year in 2000. Manuel will try to right the ship, and if nothing else will benefit from having the ability to focus on this season without lingering feelings of responsibility for a monumental collapse in the back of his mind. Those thoughts still reside with Randolph, and he will now have a lot more time to ponder them than before, for Steamboat Willie has run ashore.

Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.


Photo by The Associated Press