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INTERVIEW WITH WILLIE RANDOLPH

I'm a big baseball fan, the Yankees being my team, but I also love the Mets. I'm not one of those fans who figures you have to hate the one in order to love the other. To those who say that means I'm not a true fan because of this attitude I explain patiently to them that I'm not 8 years old anymore. Some get it, some don't. No skin off my big shnozz. Living in New York City we're blessed with two major league teams, both of them pretty exciting even if it was for different reasons this season.

The Yankees, that team of highly paid superstars who make the playoffs every single year, seemed to be unravelling these past few years with early playoff elimination and a poor start almost had them spinning out of contention early in the 2007 season. There were calls for manager Joe Torre's head and the team was pronounced dead in the water by many so-called experts and early as July. They somehow regrouped with Alex Rodriguez having a monster season, the aging (some might say ancient) starting pitching staff getting some help from the farm team's talented rookies and the nick-of-time arrival of the sensational young Joba Chamberlain in the late inning relief role that had been the team's Achille's heel all season. The Yanks made the playoffs as the American League wild card entry and were the early favorites to win the Series this year. That doesn't look so likely as of this writing since they're down 2 games to none to Cleveland in the opening 5 game round of playoff games. Those
kid pitchers are still a year away from being seasoned pros ready to work in the post-season where strong starting pitching is an absolute must.

The Mets, on the other hand, a franchise with a unique history as lovable losers came into the season practically anointed as the National League Champs, with the playing the grueling 162 game schedule considered a mere formality. They had come within one heartbreaking curve ball of going to the World Series in 2006 and had improved their team with some wise acquisitions and trades, most notably 40-year Moises Alou, the last active player of two generations of superb baseball players in the Alou family. Their ace pitcher, the mercurial Pedro Martinez would miss all but 4 games of the season as he recovered from soldier surgery but they still had plenty of capable starters in the veteran Tom Glavine, a talented young lefty fireballer Oliver Perez, 2nd year sensation John Maine and a crafty old Cuban of indeterminate age who starred brilliantly in past years in October baseball for the Yankees, el Duque himself, Orlando Hernandez. Young hitting stars David Wright and Jose Reyes were
just getting better and better and seasoned veterans like Carlos Beltran, Carlos DelGado and Sean Green rounded out their potent offensive attack. They were the team to beat and it looked like no one was up to the task.

And back for his second year as Mets manager was Willie Randolph, a former Yankee great and a new manager who had proved himself an adept skipper in 2006, his long apprenticeship with Joe Torre paying good baseball dividends. He taught his ball club his brand of baseball; clean, hard, aggressive and smart. His young players and seasoned vets responded with an exciting and disciplined brand of baseball that seemed to signal the return of Met dominance of the National League not seen since their great teams of the mid-1980's. The Mets were the team to beat this year and they showed why right from the start. They grabbed first place early and never let it go. That is, of course until game #162. They collapsed like a bagpipe after the parade is over in the last weeks of the season, providing the latest and perhaps greatest crushing heartbreak Mets fans have had to endure in a 45 year run of crushing heartbreaks.

As recently as a few weeks before the season ended the Mets had a commanding 7 game lead in their division with maybe 20 left to play, a seemingly insurmountable lead. The remaining games against mostly lousy teams would be a mere formality as they coasted to the playoffs. And coast they did, losing game after game. Even the return of Pedro Martinez who pitched like his brilliant self of old and won 3 of his 4 starts did not stop their tail spin. But such was their lead that when they limped into the final six games of the season they needed to win only four of them to stay alive. And it was a home stand so everyone figured they'd weather the storm and right themselves for some October baseball. Well, guess again. They lost five out of six and are now watching the playoffs on TV like he rest of us.

This Mets collapse is being called the worst in baseball history, eclipsing even the legendary fall of he 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, for decades the gold standard for giving away the store. On the second to last day of this season, the Mets won spectacularly with John Maine throwing a near no-hitter and the Mets scoring 13 runs in a shutout of the Florida Marlins. Had they won the next day they would have at least secured a tie for the lead, forcing a one game playoff for the title. But that was the day that Tom Glavine got old in the ring, the 300 game winner surrendering 7 runs and recording just one out before being lifted from the game by a shell-shocked Willie Randolph. This time around it was the Phillies who benefitted from the Mets' ineptitude, walking off with the National League East division championship with a slim single game lead.

Such was the magnitude of the collapse that the story was huge, far more than a baseball story or a local heartbreak but a national curiosity endlessly dissected on sports show, news programs and even shows that never feature sports. Letterman, Leno and every other TV comic had a month's worth of sure-fire material with the story and national magazines are preparing lengthy features on the the Great Mets Collapse of '07. Many people posited that Willie Randolph's promising career and a baseball manager would be derailed and the taint of the Mets' failure would see him fired before the playoffs began and make other teams seeking new mangers hesitant to hire the man. Baseball people are a notoriously superstitious lot and the thinking was that bad mojo was sure to dog Willie wherever he went.

But as the smoke clears Willie still has his job because after all, in his two years there the Mets had a first and a second place finish on his watch, far better than most managers of ball clubs. All through the ordeal he has held himself with the same quiet dignity, class and candor that marked his professional demeanor as a key player on the champion Bronx Zoo Yankee teams of the late 1970's and early 80's right through his long coaching career when his playing days were done. Mets General Manager Omar Minaya didn't lose his head and fire the manager who, after all, wasn't the one striking out in crucial situations, booting ground balls, serving tasty meatballs to opposing batters or letting their attention wander to who-knows-where while they squandered opportunity after opportunity to nail down a championship well within their grasp.

Still, you've got to figure Willie to be one traumatized camper right about now. He and I have a lot in common. We both grew up in Brooklyn and went to high schools that are just a few blocks apart, Tilden for him and Nazareth for me. He's about a year younger than me so we're contemporaries of a sort, what with him becoming a great ballplayer and respected baseball man and me living a wild man, out-of-control rock & roll life before founding bobcrespo.com. Okay, the contemporary bit is somewhat of a stretch, but I was always a huge Willie Randolph fan so I figured I'd give him some positive feedback amid all the negativity in his life right now.

Now, I didn't have an appointment to interview him. If you can believe it, The Mets front office never heard of bobcrespo.com and wondered what were my sports credentials for interviewing their manager. Okay, I understand they're a little sensitive and testy right now and pretty busy too, what with all that going-back-to-the-drawing-board stuff they have to do before next season, but I figured they'd jump at the chance to let Willie speak to the internet readers and baseball fans all over the web. Wasn't the case. So, what to do, what to do?

Well, I waited at the Shea Stadium parking lot and took my chances, figuring if Willie Randolph wouldn't come to bobcrespo.com, then bobcrespo.com would have to come to Willie Randolph. So one afternoon there I am poking around a deserted Shea Stadium when I spot him getting out of his car and entering one of the gates so I followed him in. I got about ten feet from him when he turned around a bit startled so I began out interview.

BC: "Willie? Willie Randolph! "

WR: "Who are you and how did you get in here?"

BC: "Bob Crespo of bobcrespo.com, Willie, and I'd like to interview you for my readers about the last weeks of the Mets season."

WR: "Security! Security!"

Well, that was a quick interview, and not very illuminating either, but what the heck, I got to meet Willie Randolph and some other guys who work for the team too, although I like Willie a lot better than those other three guys. They weren't all that friendly, or gentle either for that matter, which is odd when you think of all the years the Mets had this reputation as the lovable team in this town. They looked more like ex-wrestlers or bar bouncers than baseball players. Maybe that's why I didn't recognize them or ask for autographs. In retrospect, maybe I ought to have firmed up a date and time with Willie before beginning our interview. Well, that's all water under the bridge now. The only thing I've got to say is Let's Go Mets in 08!}

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