Randolph follows his own path to top
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA—Willie Randolph never bought into the perception that bad lights and bus trips were a prerequisite for achieving his dream. He was always upfront about his desire to manage in the majors. But did the pursuit of that goal really require him to leave his family behind in New York and spend a summer proving he could hack it in, say, the South Atlantic League?
Coaching with the Yankees is actually a pretty good training ground for managing. You have a front-row seat watching Joe Torre, the acknowledged master, placate George Steinbrenner while juggling the expectations of the most demanding city, media and fans in sports. As a bonus, you're pretty much assured of a fat postseason check to supplement your salary every year.
So Randolph plugged along for 11 seasons in the Bronx, content in the knowledge that his chance would come one day, until a series of rejections made him bite his tongue and wonder. He became something of a professional interviewee, getting annual token looks from teams with a desire to avoid a fine and a rebuke from commissioner Bud Selig.
Now that he's finally made it with the Mets as part of general manager Omar Minaya's rainbow coalition and career development program, he has no second thoughts about his career path. And he feels no need to apologize for the lack of an Arizona Fall League stint on his resume.
"I've gotten a lot of experience over the years, and I've learned a lot," Randolph says. "I've been around winning all my life. I'm the manager now and it doesn't matter what happened in the past."
He doesn't have to sell himself anymore. Just win.
After Randolph beat out Terry Collins and Rudy Jaramillo for his new job in November, some overzealous Mets fans were bent out of shape by the prospect of a hardcore Yankee running their team. It was the same sort of Big Apple provincialism that ran rampant when the NHL's New York Rangers named former Islander Bryan Trottier to run their team.
More New Yorkers are relieved that Randolph isn't Art Howe, who, it turns out, wasn't meant for the biggest stage of all. In New York, a manager has to provide at least a smidge of entertainment value with his double switches. Howe, while a decent and sincere man, was too much vanilla and not enough Bobby Valentine.
During his tenure as third-base coach with the Yankees, Randolph was known for relating well to players without coddling them. But he also had a reputation as a guy who could be testy or thin-skinned when reporters grilled him about a misguided decision to wave a runner home.
At the Winter Meetings in December, media members noticed that Randolph seemed looser, more relaxed, more inclined to engage in playful banter. Maybe he knew something. For a while, all people could talk about was Jeff Wilpon's incessant interference or the Mets' 12 assistant general managers (13 if you count Anna Benson). Then the Mets invested $172 million in Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. Now they're a team that fans in the Dominican and Seth in Syosset might both learn to love.
Randolph chuckles at the perception that his new team has an inferiority complex to the Yankees. It's his job to change that perception and give Mets fans a reason to get excited about something other than the Subway Series.
"I think New York is big enough for the both of us," he says.
In 1992, The Sporting News did a story on active major leaguers who had the stuff to graduate to managing. In a poll of managers, coaches and executives, most named Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia as the player best equipped to make a smooth transition to the dugout. Right behind him was Carlton Fisk, and third in line was Willie Randolph.
"Randolph has all of the credentials, especially as a teacher," said Lou Piniella, Reds manager at the time. "He has a great intensity, a great desire to win, and that comes through to others."
Players who are inquisitive and prone to absorbing the game's nuances are always going to stand out, but it's tough to assess what coaching means as a predictor of managerial success. In the NFL, it was evident that Bill Belichick's mind would propel him to the next level. But do the attributes that make Don Baylor a successful hitting coach or Ray Miller an effective pitching coach translate to running a team effectively? Since there's no guarantee, a little hands-on experience never hurts.
Of the 30 big league managers this season, 20 managed in the minors and three more (Dusty Baker, Lloyd McClendon and Bob Melvin) apprenticed in the Arizona Fall League. That leaves six—Piniella, Torre, Frank Robinson, Phil Garner, Alan Trammell and Ozzie Guillen—who managed for the first time in the majors.
Randolph will make it seven in spring training, but his peers seem to think his playing and coaching pedigree give him a sufficiently strong foundation.
"He has a lot of experience with a pretty good franchise," Trammell says. "How many times did they miss the playoffs when he was there? In my opinion, it'll be no problem."
One of Randolph's biggest challenges will be dealing with people who look at him differently. When Garner's playing career was winding down, teammates often approached him to pick his brain and air gripes. Players came to him less often when he became a coach, and less still once he began managing the Brewers. "It was just yesterday that I was a player," Garner says, "and all of a sudden there's that line."
Garner led Milwaukee to a 92-70 record in his first season and finished second to Tony La Russa in the American League manager of the year voting. He still considers it his best managing job, in part because he acted more on instinct and was less inclined to use statistics as a crutch. "Everything comes from the gut," he says.
Trammell found that nothing could prepare him for his first season in Detroit, when the Tigers went 43-119 in a wall-to-wall horror show. Not 20 seasons at shortstop or four years as a coach in Detroit and San Diego. Part of it is the inherent sense of solitude that the top job brings.
"When you're in a tight game and you have to make a decision or a change, you know the writers are coming to you after the game to know why," Trammell says. "You're accountable. That's by far the biggest thing."
With New York comes attention, with attention comes pressure, and with pressure comes the ultimate test. After a decade of waiting his turn, Willie Randolph thinks he's ready. Was the coach cut out to manage? We're about to find out.
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.