By Thursday morning, of course, Joe Girardi had become, in the estimation of a large chunk of the Mets’ fan base, a combination of Casey Stengel, Vince Lombardi, Pat Riley and Toe Blake. It is hard to blame anyone for thinking that, because he was the most obvious choice to be the team’s next manager. It was obvious in May, when it became clear Mickey Callaway was in over his head, when they first should have been vacuuming the red carpet for Girardi.
And it was abundantly clear when the job actually opened, when Girardi and his championship ring and his 10 winning seasons in 10 tries with the Yankees and his (you would assume) furious desire to pay the Yankees back from the other side of the RFK Bridge, became, clearly, far and away, the best available and most viable candidate.
Instead, he goes to Philadelphia.
He leaves in his wake a manager’s search so crowded that you half expect Morris Buttermaker to come in for a sit-down with Brodie Van Wagenen and Jeff Wilpon, to say nothing of an army of apoplectic Mets fans who have seen, once again, their worst fears realized:
1. The GM wants a puppet.
2. The owners want cheap puppets.
3. And neither seems all that bothered that Girardi will be working a mere 90 miles to the south, in the employ of the Mets’ chief geographic rival (non-Yankees division) for a Phillies team that faces the exact same challenge as the Mets: figuring out a way to rise in an NL East featuring one brilliant young team that figures to be brilliant for years to come (Braves), and another that very well may be champions of the world by the end of the weekend (Nationals).
Van Wagenen and the Wilpons always blanch at the notions that numbers 1 and 2 are based in reality, but for now it is hard to understand any other reasons why the Mets wouldn’t have pounced at the opportunity to make this happen.
What we are left with is a pool of candidates — barring the famous “bombshell” we keep hearing about — who share one quality among all else: nobody has any idea if they can manage or not. They would all be first-time big-league managers. They will all have, as their chief assets, a great interview in the hopper and a compelling (but unproven) philosophy for how to win games and how to survive in a complicated, hyper-collaborative corporate structure.
And look: it isn’t that first-time managers should automatically be ignored because of the fiasco that was Mickey Callaway’s tenure; Callaway wasn’t a failure because he was a first-time manager, he was a failure because he was a bad manager. There’s a difference. Once upon a time the sainted Girardi was himself a first-timer, and all he did was win Manager of the Year for the Marlins in 2006, some sleight-of-hand trickery that may still be the best managing job he ever did. Of course, he was rewarded for his efforts with a pink slip.
Three of the four managers who worked the League Championship Series were first-time managers and the fourth, A.J. Hinch, was 89-123 in his first crack at managing with the Diamondbacks — and now is viewed as some kind of baseball whisperer. When it comes to identifying successful baseball managers, it is always best to remember the way the great William Goldman once described Hollywood: nobody knows anything.
And if that is the reality of baseball, and it is, then maybe Van Wagenen will be proven right. Maybe Girardi’s flammable ways will be gasoline in a combustible Phillies clubhouse. Maybe Carlos Beltran or Eduardo Perez or Tim Bogar or whomever will, in five years, make people shake their heads at how prescient the Mets’ brass was, how courageous they were to keep their own counsel rather than succumb to the clamor and the noise (there was plenty of dismay, after all, when the Mets hired first-time manager Davey Johnson on Oct. 13, 1983; that one worked out OK). Maybe. For Van Wagenen’s sake, and Wilpon’s, it had better.
Because until proven otherwise, this is business as usual for the Mets, living down to all the worst fears their own fans have about who they are and the way they do business. Maybe that’s fair, maybe it isn’t. They are more in the crosshairs of public opinion now than ever before. Get used to it. And be prepared to own it.
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