Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Terry Collins was in the first days of his final chance when he agreed to meet me at a Bob Evans restaurant in Port St. Lucie, Fla. It was a brisk February morning in 2011, and I was assigned to write a feature about the new manager.
After several losing seasons, the Mets were at the beginning of a rebuilding process -- and everyone knew that Collins would be long gone by the time they started winning again, if not sooner. He was 61, had flamed out spectacularly in two previous jobs, and had a reputation as one of the most tightly wound old-schoolers in the game. "There's no way he makes it through the season," said one of the other writers after his introductory news conference, and it seemed like a reasonable prediction.
But the Collins who sat with me that morning, ignoring a bowl of oatmeal while talking a mile a minute, was not angry. He was simply excited -- more excited about a baseball season than anyone I'd ever seen. He locked me into intense eye contact when making the case for Mike Pelfrey as his opening day starter, and stabbed the air with an index finger while breaking down Daniel Murphy's swing. He went through the entire roster, like it was the most important subject anyone had ever discussed.
An hour or so later, I walked out of that Bob Evans, dizzy with a level of enthusiasm for the game that I hadn't felt in ages. Still, I never could have predicted that he would lead the team to the World Series in 2015, or become, against all expectations, the longest-tenured manager in franchise history.
On the final day of the 2017 regular season, a tearful Collins announced that he was stepping down; he would later accept a front office position. He was 68, by now the oldest manager in baseball, and the team would have let him go anyway after a disappointing year. It's hard to argue with the decision, when everyone involved agreed it was time.
Having spent so many years on the road with Collins -- it's the nature of baseball that between 2011 and 2015, when I moved on to other beats, he and I probably logged more hours together than with our respective wives -- I wanted to see him one more time, and asked him to meet me for coffee near the Queens apartment that he was soon to vacate. I prepared myself for a poignant, even sad experience.
After we ordered our coffees, Collins shrugged and said, "Look, I'm tired." For a moment, I actually believed him. Then, he spent the next hour breaking down the throwing mechanics, swing paths, and baserunning skills of every young player he had seen this year, and feverishly laying out plans for his new role helping Mets minor leaguers.
Just like at our first breakfast together eight years earlier, I left the place jazzed up about baseball, newly awake to its nuances, and hoping that the game was not yet ready to sweep the men of Collins' generation totally aside.
Covering baseball is a privilege that exposes you to an unending parade of fascinating people and ideas. You can talk analytics with Sandy Alderson or Bill James, two of the men responsible for making the game as smart as it is today. You can ask Jimmy Rollins or Adam Jones or Ron Darling, current and former players who have spoken eloquently on social issues, their opinions about the news of the day.
You can learn from Billy Bean, the gay ex-player who now works in the commissioner's office and is challenging athletes to find a more enlightened way to think about sexuality and masculinity. The game can even take you to the White House, if you cover a World Series winner; in April of 2010, I stood 20 feet from Barack Obama while he congratulated the Philadelphia Phillies.
But the loss of Collins as a daily presence, which follows the exits in recent years of other older, salt-of-the-earth skippers like Detroit's Jim Leyland and Philly's Charlie Manuel and Pete Mackanin, does make the landscape less interesting, less fun and conversational. This was a generation that could relate to blue-collar fans more than Ivy League executives, and did not guard baseball news and insights as if they were state secrets. They loved the sport too much to ever shut up about it.
Collins was a minor league infielder in the 1970s, known more for his passion than his skill. Once, a ground ball took a bad hop and broke his jaw; not wanting to miss a game, he played for weeks with the jaw wired shut and a pair of pliers in his back pocket, just in case he ever had to vomit. By the 1990s, he was manager of the Houston Astros, and could not deal with players who lacked his intensity. He clashed with several stars, and was eventually let go. A subsequent stint in Anaheim went the same way, and ended with Collins quitting mid-season in a tearful news conference. He spent the next decade in player development, still grinding away, happy much of the time but craving another shot.
When he got the Mets job more than a decade later, Collins pledged to make the most of it. On the morning of our breakfast at the Bob Evans, he swore that he had evolved, and would now be able to relate to star players. He clearly meant it, but I couldn't help but feel skeptical, wondering how many sexagenarians are capable of change that deep.
But over the course of his first season, Collins actually did form alliances with veterans like Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Jose Reyes, who still adore him. His growth was tested on the final day, when Reyes was in a tight race for the National League batting title. He led off the game by dropping down a bunt, beating it out, and then asking to be removed.
Any old-schooler would consider that a cheap way to win the crown, but Collins had adapted enough to give Reyes what he wanted. At the postgame news conference, I asked him about it, and he started crying, overcome by a complicated blend of feelings that included pride in his own growth and displeasure at Reyes' request.
This wasn't the last time that Collins wept (or shouted, or laughed, or joyfully sprayed champagne on fans). His postgame comments became must-see TV, an electrifying antidote to the buttoned-up joylessness projected by his crosstown counterpart, Yankees manager Joe Girardi. He could irritate players by yelling at the wrong times, or allowing a loss to weigh too heavily on him. As would any person trying to manage so many different personalities, Collins inspired loyalty, annoyance, and every feeling in between.
But for a writer, it's hard to overstate the value of being exposed to a person so attuned to the game's emotional undercurrents. One of the great sacrifices of covering a sport that you love is that it risks becoming too much of a job. Spring training no longer represents rebirth, but that terrible moment when you say goodbye to your family for six weeks. The World Series is not entirely the fall classic anymore, but the two weeks when you're exhausted from a year on the road, and desperate to get home.
Really, anything beautiful can lose its shine, after you spend too much time with it. But to know Terry Collins and his generation of baseball men was to watch people who never lost touch with a feeling about the game that grabbed them as children -- and who were generous enough to share that love with anyone willing to listen.
On the day of our breakfast in Queens this week, I was walking down the steps at the subway station before I realized that we hadn't said goodbye. It was more of an, "okay, see ya later." We'd been so lost in the moment, talking baseball, that we'd forgotten to be sad.