NEW YORK -- Willie Randolph grinned when he heard a familiar voice heckling him from the edge of the visitors' dugout at Citi Field.
As the media horde parted, the former Mets manager got a glimpse of the guy interrupting the session: Jerry Manuel, the man who has his old job.
"My old honchos there, my old partners in crime," Randolph said Friday, chuckling.
Manuel shouted back, "Did you find your way to work?"
Yup, it was just like old times when Manuel and Randolph kidded around with each other before the Mets hosted the Milwaukee Brewers in the opener of a weekend series. Only Randolph was in the visitors' clubhouse of the sparkling new field serving as Milwaukee's bench coach.
And while the native New Yorker had to check out the Jackie Robinson Rotunda as a visitor and his view of the field was different from the one he expected to have during construction, he had no regrets.
"I wish I were still here," Randolph said. "Obviously it was kind of bittersweet to watch the place being built the last couple of years and kind of anticipating being here to experience this beautiful ballpark. Deep down inside I feel good about my run here. No doubt I would still love to be at the helm here, but it didn't work out that way.
"I just feel good about where I am right now and understanding that life sometimes takes twists and turns, and I've been around the game long, long time. I'm happy."
Randolph took over the Mets in 2005 and a year later had them in the NL championship series, losing to St. Louis in seven games.
But the next season the Mets had a seven-game lead in the NL East with 17 to play and missed the playoffs. Bad feelings lingered when the Mets started slowly last year. The team was 34-35 when Randolph was replaced by Manuel on June 17.
Randolph spent the remainder of last season at home in New Jersey with his family, and watched the Mets undergo a similar September collapse.
"My heart and soul is still with a lot of these guys. It was tough the way things ended for them," Randolph said. "It was kind of tough to watch them go through that."
While he could have sat at home and collected the $2.25 million the Mets owed him, Randolph itched to get back into the game he had been part of since he was called up by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1975. He interviewed for several managerial jobs, including the Brewers. But when Ken Macha was hired, Randolph called to congratulate him, and soon after he was offered the job of bench coach.
"I got into managing because I wanted to be able to win a championship as a manager so that's not going to derail me or change my mindset from hoping for that opportunity and dreaming that dream," said Randolph, a part of six World Series championships as a player and coach with the Yankees.
"My way of motivating myself is hopefully getting to do it as a manager someday. ... I'm motivated and excited about being here and getting back to growth, getting to the point where -- learning about the game, learning from Mach and his staff. We've got a great staff here so I get a chance to pick their brains."
Randolph has been credited with helping the Brewers' young infielders, especially second baseman Rickie Weeks -- something that didn't surprise his former players.
"I'll always be grateful for everything Willie did for me," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "First of all, he's a great person, and he's a great baseball man."
Manuel was excited to see Randolph, too. After a well-photographed embrace, Manuel stuck to his pre-batting practice vow and asked Randolph if he gained weight. Before Manuel could ask about his receding hairline, Randolph lifted his cap to show him his shiny head.
"I'm looking forward to competing against him," Manuel said before they met on the field.
Randolph shared a quick story about his new granddaughter with Manuel and then had to excuse himself.
As Manuel headed back to the Mets dugout, Randolph, the baseball lifer, smiled and said: "They have me pitching batting practice."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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