Last Laugh

Word first leaked on Friday that Jerry Manuel would not be retained as the manager of the New York Mets in 2011. It will presumably be was made official today, but it’s the Mets . . . so who knows.

I sat in for the press conference with Manuel before Friday’s game, after the news surfaced. It was bizarre. Reporters asked him how it felt to be let go, how he felt about his tenure, what he wished had gone differently, but prefaced every question with something along the lines of “you know, if you are going to be let go, and there is a report saying you are…” Manuel dutifully answered every question, but as if they were all hypothetical because he hadn’t been directly informed of the organization’s plans. “Everybody’s writing me off, and no one’s told me I’ve been written off,” he half-laughed, half-sighed at one point. It went on like this for a while, though he did seem to grow more resigned to his fate as the press conference continued.

When there were no more questions, Manuel stood up to leave, the illuminated bright blue of the Mets-Citi backdrop behind him. He paused for a moment as the reporters gathered their recording devices from the table he was seated at. He smiled playfully at the group and said, “You guys don’t want to talk about the game, huh?” He drew a morbid laugh.

Whatever you thought about Jerry Manuel’s merits as manager, he could be quite amusing. On his first day as Mets skipper, Manuel jokingly declared himself a gangsta to the media after pulling a reluctant and potentially-injured Jose Reyes from the game. He then threatened to stab his star shortstop if he argued with him on the field again — probably the first time in (modern) baseball history an active manager has threatened to shank one of his own players on the field of play. So began the Jerry Manuel era. “They’re calling it cramps . . . surgery Thursday,” he joked as injuries piled up last season. He talked about sleeping in his uniform so he couldn’t be fired. His sense of humor was self-aware and ironic — he understood how he and his team were perceived by the media and used it to his advantage through his humor. His wit was ultimately a tribute to his intelligence.

Still, the problem has always been that Manuel’s intelligent sense of humor stands in stark contrast with the less-than-intelligent way he explained his baseball decisions. When it was time to make jokes, Manuel was smooth, well-spoken, and easy to follow; when it was time to explain what his team could do better, his speech would become filled with the number of unnecessary qualifiers a teenager uses when breaking up with his first significant other. “We’ve got to, at some point push a run across, in that particular ballgame, in this ballpark, late.” Painful things like that.

It wasn’t just that Manuel’s speech was convoluted — the baseball reasoning he was trying to express was also suspect, to say the least. As Ken Tremendous put it a week ago, “I feel like every time I see a quote from that guy it’s super insane.” Manuel would bunt endlessly with position players. He explained his refusal to use his closer in a tied road game by saying, “Well, that’s baseball,” which is exactly the same as saying, “Well, Mom, everyone else was doing it.” He was responsible for constructing one of the worst opening day lineups in Mets history. He picked on certain players in the media and refused to use others to the point of humiliation. He overworked his relievers until they were exhausted and ineffective, buried them for weeks because they had become exhausted and ineffective, and then couldn’t seem to understand why any of it had happened. He singlehandedly derailed the career of the organization’s top pitching prospect for three months by making him a reliever with no role. Everything was made all the more infuriating because he could never fully explain why he did what he did, at least not in a rational manner. It drove me nuts as a fan and provided mountains of material as a blogger.

That being said, all managers do these things. All of them. All mangers put players in doghouses and destroy the arms of their relievers. All managers say inane and occasionally boneheaded things to the press, and often invent new words in the process. All skippers go about their jobs making misguided decisions based on outdated knowledge — one gets the feeling that trying to explain sabermetric ideas about bunting to Charlie Manuel would be like trying to explain quantum mechanics to . . . well, Charlie Manuel. Jerry Manuel isn’t special. All managers do these things — they only become problems when the team is losing. I think everyone knows this.

Unfortunately for Jerry Manuel, the Mets finished with losing records in both of his full seasons as manager, so these things became problems. His sense of humor only served to exacerbated it. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, he made himself a target with his jokes. Here was this guy who could be quite thoughtful and funny, yet kept making all kinds of insane decisions about his team, and then explained them in the most confounding way possible. How anyone could be so funny yet so utterly clueless about baseball was weird and confusing — but it kept us all focused on him, and not the players he managed. “Hey did you notice Jason Bay is having an awful — WHY WOULDN’T YOU USE YOUR BEST RELIEVER HERE! STOP MANAGING TO THE SAVE RULE! THAT’S BASEBALL???!? STOP LAUGHING ABOUT IT YOU BESPECTACLED WARLOCK!” And we would yell at our televisions as we stopped thinking about Jason Bay and focused all our energy at the manager.  I have no idea if this was intentional, and I don’t even know if it matters, but it worked. His jokes either entertained or infuriated us, but they also distracted us from the team itself. Jerry Manuel would have been the perfect skipper for a rebuilding club.

Instead, he got to manage one that was falling apart. ”I never really had the pieces we had put together last a significant time,” Manuel said on Friday. Jose Reyes played 170 games between 2009 and 2010. Carlos Beltran played 145. John Maine and Oliver Perez made 24 starts each. Jeff Francouer was his right fielder for 199 games. Manuel was stuck playing with 24 and 23-man rosters for extended stretches. The pieces just weren’t there — Manuel didn’t make it any easier on himself by falling in love with Omir Santos, Gary Matthews Jr., and Alex Cora, among others, but no one was going to turn these Mets rosters into winners. He said, “I’m the manager of them. I did the best I could. It didn’t work out.”

Maybe there was nothing anyone could do with these players. Perhaps Jerry Manuel is being let go because he’s being made one of the scapegoats for this mess, and he helped do himself in by becoming a target. He drew our attention with his humor and then angered us with his ridiculous decisions that often didn’t matter all that much. What’s happened might not be fair to Jerry Manuel. I don’t know if he’s a good manager, but I’m not sure he ever got a fair shot with the Mets. I don’t think we’ll ever know.

Oh well. That’s baseball.

Image from Flickr. CC 3.0

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Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

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