- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- Terry Collins was wearing No. 10 as a tribute to his father confessor, Jim Leyland, the man who spent hours and hours prepping him for the interview with the Houston Astros that landed Collins his first big league job.
Yeah, Collins is a Leyland guy; it said so right there on the New York Mets jersey he was wearing over his shirt and tie. But as it turned out, Collins' best friend Tuesday was Joe Torre, another middle-aged lifer who came to this market with a two-year contract and a résumé that defined a nice guy expected to finish last.
Of course, Torre made a mockery of his losing record and the Clueless Joe headline that framed it, and his staggering success in the Bronx has given pause to critics otherwise inclined to rip New York franchises for making uninspiring hires.
Never mind that for every Torre in the big city, there's a Don Nelson or an Art Howe or a Jerry Manuel, a recycled veteran who failed. Collins gets the Torre benefit of the doubt. The 20th manager of the Mets has a chance -- if only a puncher's chance -- to be the first man since the 11th, Davey Johnson, to win a World Series ring.
"We want to be the last team standing next October," Collins said.
And while it would be liberating for millions of battered and abused Mets fans to live through their very own Torre story, circa 1996, the more likely scenario has Collins booked for an unhappy ending.
He didn't get to the finish line with the Astros or the Anaheim Angels or the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, just like Torre didn't get to the finish line with the Mets, Atlanta Braves or St. Louis Cardinals. Only Torre's young Yankees weren't Ike Davis and Josh Thole, but Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, kids about to flower into the greatest winners of their time.
Collins will open next season without Johan Santana, and with a team and franchise often burdened by the kind of injuries, dysfunction and doubt that swallowed the manager whole in 1999, when he quit with his Angels 28 games out of first place.
"TC came down on his last day, after his press conference, and met with a couple of guys in a back room," recalled his shortstop, Gary DiSarcina, now an assistant to Angels GM Tony Reagins. "I gave him a big hug, and we cried like babies. That whole thing ripped Terry's guts out."
Mo Vaughn's failure to join his fellow Angels in a bench-clearing brawl in Cleveland, followed by Troy Percival's criticism of his teammates and Vaughn's subsequent tirades -- directed at Percival and the manager -- blew up Collins' clubhouse, forcing his emotional goodbye.
"I was at the bottom of that brawl getting stepped on and punched and kicked," DiSarcina said, "and the day TC resigned was a horrible day. Any player worth his salt felt ashamed and embarrassed that day, because Terry was the same manager he was in '98, when we played very well for him.
"We had injuries and no depth, we didn't pitch well, and we were expected to win after we gave Mo the big money. We were losing, and that starts the finger-pointing, and yet I'd walk into the clubhouse at 1:30 and TC was already there by noon, in uniform and ready to rock and roll. I knew how much he cherished being a big league manager, so if you weren't ashamed the day he left, you were the one with issues."
As an instructor with the Boston Red Sox, DiSarcina reconnected with his former manager in Florida last month, with Collins in his final days as the Mets' minor league field coordinator.
"Terry's a development guy at heart," DiSarcina said. "He loves being around young players, he gets very engaged in spring training and he's got an incredible memory. He was telling me things about prospects' relatives and their family backgrounds, and I was like, 'What?'"
Beyond his bottomless memory bank, Collins had plenty going for him when he beat out Bob Melvin, Chip Hale and Wally Backman. He had the respect of Sandy Koufax before he earned the trust of Sandy Alderson. He finished in second place five times over six years in Houston and Anaheim, and age clearly hadn't diminished his passion for the game.
Collins is a potential high-energy antidote to what has been a low-energy team, and he moved to soften the perception that he's too demanding and quick-tempered for his own good, much like another TC, Tom Coughlin, before the makeover.
"I'm not the evil devil that a lot of people have made me out to be," Collins said.
Alderson's think tank bought the pitch.
"I don't think Terry's from the Billy Martin school, where it's two years and you turn it around and then the comet burns out," said J.P. Ricciardi, among Alderson's brightest advisers. "There's a lot more depth to Terry than that."
During the interview process, Ricciardi said, "We grilled Terry pretty good and hit him with a lot of tough questions, and he wasn't on his heels with anything."
Of course the Mets asked Collins about his DUI arrest in 2002. "And he was very forthright about it," Ricciardi said. "He said he did it and made a mistake."
The Mets have endured more than their share of player and executive misconduct but decided they were comfortable with Collins' risk-reward profile. So be it.
The new guy guaranteed he won't lose the Mets' clubhouse like he lost the Angels' clubhouse and maintained he had no interest in calling this a rebuilding stage. Collins' 444-434 career record looks better than Torre's 894-1,003 the day he arrived in the Bronx, allowing Mets fans the right to dream.
And that's OK. Hired as something of a sheriff, albeit a more measured and patient one, Collins will round up enough bootleggers and bad guys to restore some respectability to a franchise in dire need.
But most Westerns don't end in parades. Before this movie is over, expect Terry Collins to kick through the wrong saloon door.
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