Yesterday’s loss at the hands of the Pirates is one the Mets and their fans will want to put out of their minds very quickly. New York’s ugliest affair of the season was punctuated in the bottom of the 8th inning when Mike Baxter ran into Kirk Nieuwenhuis on a routine flyball, which led to a three-base error and the eventual winning run. Baxter has since taken responsibility for the blunder in hopes that the team will move on and not dwell on what might have been.
But there was one standout moment from last night’s game that Met fans shouldn’t be so quick to forget. In the 9th inning, just after his mistake that would cost his team a win, a sullen Baxter was sitting alone on the dugout steps, lost and wallowing in his own thoughts. Any of us can relate to what he was feeling: we all have experienced failure from time to time, and we all know what it’s like to feel like we’ve let people down. But before Mike could dig himself any deeper, up came his manager to offer an arm around the shoulder and a few words of condolence and encouragement. We don’t know exactly what he said, but I can imagine it was just what Mike Baxter needed to hear.
Terry Collins wasn’t always the kind of manager who would do that sort of thing. In his days with the Houston Astros, he carried a reputation as a much fierier individual, the kind of guy who would get on his players if they made the kind of mistake Baxter made last night. This didn’t always work out for Collins and his teams in the 1990s; Joe Morgan argues in his book Long Balls, No Strikes that Terry’s edgy, “waiting-for-disaster” managerial style rubbed off on his players.
“To alleviate the tension the manger was bringing to the clubhouse, they put added pressure on themselves to perform well, which invariably choked off their natural abilities so that they can’t play their best.”
Morgan observed that Collins had a much more laid-back approach in his days with the then-Anaheim Angels. In this case, however, mellowing out had an adverse effect on his managerial prestige: a players’ coup forced Terry to resign early in the 1999 season.
After spending more than a decade in the baseball wilderness, including a year as Mets minor league coordinator before being hired as manager in November 2010, Collins appears to have mastered a combination of fire and ice when it comes to running his ball club. He will come out and challenge his team when it most needs it, such as he did last year around this time, but he recognizes how fragile some of his boys’ confidence can be. Old Terry Collins likely would have chewed Mike Baxter out for making “such a bone-headed play.” Instead, he reached out to Baxter and did his best to get to the root of the problem while making sure Baxter knew he still believed in him.
Some old-school baseball thinkers may argue that this is not how a major league manager should be with his players; they may see Terry’s actions last night as having a “Little League,” “aww shucks, Billy” mentality. They may argue for an all-fire all-the-time approach because it will bring out the best in players. I disagree with this notion, and I point to an example of a Hall of Fame manager who is considered one of the best the game has ever known, but who still could have done more.
I recently finished reading Bottom of the 33rd, Dan Barry’s account of the longest game in baseball history between the Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox in 1981. The Red Wings’ parent club back then was the Baltimore Orioles, managed for 17 years by firebrand Earl Weaver. At least half a dozen times Barry alludes to how angry Weaver could get and how feared he was by his players. Weaver was the kind of man who showed no regard to the confidence of his young players, brutally chewing them out for any sort of mistake, and in some cases all but assuring they would never reach the major leagues again. You can point to Weaver’s success as a manager (4 AL pennants and a World Series title in 1970) and say this kind of style works. But I look at his record and say he could have done a lot more. The Orioles of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were some of the best teams to ever play the game, with Cooperstown-caliber players in the field, at the plate, and on the mound. Much like Met fans think about their teams in the mid-‘80s, they could have and should have won more than just one World Series. I wonder if those Baltimore teams would have been more successful if the players had not been playing under the constant fear of Earl Weaver’s wrath.
Terry Collins may not have the managerial talent of Earl Weaver, and the 2012 Mets may not have the Orioles’ aces-wild pitching staff or orbit-inducing offense, but you would be hard-pressed to find a team that enjoys playing the game more than these guys. There are times when Collins needs to be a firebrand, but he does not take it to the Earl Weaver-style, edgy mess he was in Houston. Conversely, there are times (more often this year with such a young squad) when he needs to be relaxed and relatable, but he never goes so far as the Jerry Manuel-style cool dude he was in Anaheim. Terry’s meet-you-in-the-middle managerial style has had a positive impact on the team since 2011: he inspires his players to play their best for him because they genuinely like playing for him. As long as he continues to get the most out of his players and keep them from getting too low, as he did with Mike Baxter last night, Terry Collins will have himself a place with the New York Mets and in the hearts of fans from Long Island to Long Beach.