- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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The countdown to Willie Randolph's opening address in spring training has already started. In just under 100 days, the new Mets manager will stand in the middle of the clubhouse in Port St. Lucie, take a deep breath and say -- what, exactly?
Will Randolph emulate Joe Torre's cool, professional demeanor? Will he burn as hotly as former teammate Lou Piniella? Will Randolph be a hands-on instructor or a distant head of state?
The answer to these questions will say plenty about Randolph's chances of success at Shea, where Art Howe finished fifth and fourth in the NL East in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Howe never did understand the impatience that drives New York's baseball engine, particularly among Mets fans, who'd watched the franchise decline ever since the 2000 World Series.
That's why Randolph was lured to Shea -- partly because he's better equipped to deal with Shea's in-house politics and partly because he comes from that Yankees pedigree. But friends have already warned Randolph about the risks of overstating his credentials as a Torre disciple, citing the disastrous decision Lee Mazzilli made last year with the Orioles.
In only a few weeks of spring training, the O's grew tired of Mazzilli repeatedly invoking Torre's name and the Yankee tradition. That lesson wasn't lost on Randolph, who's been observant to realize, "Most teams hate the Yankees, so you can't rub their noses in it."
But that's not to say Randolph is forgetting all that he learned from Torre. Quite the contrary -- the new Mets manager is hoping to re-create the air of professionalism in the Yankees clubhouse. The authority flows directly from the manager's office, but Randolph took note of the way Torre has never bullied his team, even former rebels like Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi.
"Watching how Joe handled players, how he motivated them with little tweaks here or there, was one of the biggest things I learned with the Yankees," Randolph said by telephone on Thursday. "I like to think of myself as a communicator, too. I have my ways of connecting with people."
Mets officials believe Randolph's path will be somewhere between Torre's and Piniella's -- not quite as dry as the Yankees manager, but not nearly as volatile as Sweet Lou. Actually, Randolph will be more proactive than either one, working his clubhouse locker by locker and roaming the outfield during batting practice, chatting with his players.
"I'm not going to be the type of manager who holds up the batting cage (during BP)," Randolph said. "I think younger players appreciate that you're there with them, offering hints and tips."
Randolph's obvious energy and enthusiasm will pay a handsome public relations dividend for the Mets, at least until spring training. Until then, they can position themselves as New York's equal-opportunity team -- the fair-minded Mets, boasting Omar Minaya, the Hispanic general manager from Queens, and Randolph, the African-American manager from Brooklyn.
It's an effective foil to the corporate Yankees, whose payroll threatens to balloon to the size of a third-world country's economy in 2005. But eventually Randolph will come face to face with the realities that doomed not only Howe but also Bobby Valentine before him.
The Mets have a solid starting rotation but still lack a bona fide ace. Nevertheless, they've committed more than $30 million of next year's payroll to their starters, which could limit the Wilpons' willingness to lure a big-money free agent like Carlos Beltran.
Randolph's other issues include -- a need for a run-producer at first base; a way to shed Cliff Floyd; a way to reach Mike Piazza, who'll be as moody as ever as he continues declining. Randolph does not need Sammy Sosa in his clubhouse, as has been rumored.
More than anything, Randolph needs patience, coming from a culture where winning is an obsession. If Randolph is seeking to clone Torre's hold on the clubhouse, he'll soon learn the key difference between the Yankees and Mets:
In the Bronx, veterans like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams act as messengers, if not enforcers, of the Torre philosophy. At Shea, Mets veterans have traditionally adhered to a different, separate agenda. The friction between Valentine and Al Leiter and John Franco was no secret, hastening Valentine's dismissal in 2002. And Howe's nice-guy demeanor couldn't keep him from losing the clubhouse, either.
Randolph's greatest challenge won't be learning the double-switch but instead trying to create alliances with the Mets' stars without any managerial experience. Naturally, Randolph will rely on his Yankee education, but if he finds himself asking what would Joe do, he better keep his voice down.
Randolph isn't in the Bronx anymore. He knows he's living in a harsher, less patient universe in Flushing, where the manager is more vulnerable and the second-guessing can be as soaking as a hard rain.
"Well, I'm not going to be thin-skinned" is Randolph's promise, delivered with the eagerness of a man just 100 days away from the inaugural speech he's waited all his life to deliver.
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.
Willie Randolph will learn quickly that Flushing is far, far away from the Bronx.