By Ryan Chatelain
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Terry Collins was supposed to be a sacrificial lamb in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal that nearly cost Fred Wilpon the Mets. He was supposed to be a seat warmer for someone better until the organization got its house in order.
He sure as heck was never supposed to last seven years and lead the Mets to back-to-back postseason appearances for just the second time in franchise history, including winning the 2015 National League pennant.
If you like underdog stories, you should have a place in your heart for Collins.
“It’s been a blast, but it’s time,” Collins said Sunday as he confirmed he was stepping down as Mets skipper.
Collins will likely be remembered as a mildly successful manager who failed to win it all with a loaded roster. But taking into account that his good years were bookended by the Mets’ austerity measures in the beginning — the fallout of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme — and a staggering number of injuries in the end, it should be considered a rip-roaring success that Collins ever achieved what he did. No, he wasn’t perfect, but plenty of managers would have cracked long ago if they had been in his shoes.
“He took us from a situation where there were real questions about the organization, about the team and took us to the apex of a World Series,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. “And for that, together with the two playoff appearances, we will all be tremendously grateful.”
In the fall of 2010, the last time the Mets were in the market for a manager, the job was about as appealing as rice cakes. The team was coming off a 79-83 season, was saddled by some bad contracts — most notably Jason Bay’s four-year, $66 million deal — and had little hope of adding reinforcements due to its financial dire straits.
It was between Collins, who hadn’t managed in 12 years and had never been to the postseason as a skipper, and Wally Backman and Chip Hale, neither of whom had major league managerial experience at the time.
The Mets went with the experience. In exchange, Collins received that one last crack at managing that he thought might never come.
There were some predictably forgettable years in the Collins era, but there was also that 2012 start. After trading away Carlos Beltran the previous year, losing Jose Reyes in free agency and not adding anyone of much consequence, the Mets were supposed to be perhaps the worst team in baseball that season. Yet, by early July, they were somehow seven games above .500 before reality finally caught up to them and they faded.
There was only one logical explanation for that run: Their manager squeezed more out of the roster than he probably should have. He proved that with some actual talent, he just might be the right man to steer the ship.
If it weren’t for that one surprising half-season, it’s hard to imagine Collins would’ve still been around when the long-overdue infusion of talent — Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes — finally came.
And when the pieces were there, Collins didn’t disappoint. He led the Mets on a magical run to the World Series in 2015.
Many believed it was just the beginning of something special, but as we learned with the Amazins’ of the 1980s, things don’t always work out the way we expect and championship windows sometimes find a way of slamming shut far sooner than we expect.
The 2016 and ’17 Mets were unbelievably unfortunate on the injury front. Last season, it was Matt Harvey, David Wright, Cespedes, Lucas Duda, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, deGrom, Neil Walker, and Juan Lagares. This year it was Harvey, Wright, Cespedes, Matz and Wheeler again, but also Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Jeurys Familia, Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo, Wilmer Flores, Brandon Nimmo and T.J. Rivera.
That volume of injuries is bound to sink the vast majority of teams. And this season, it did for the Mets.
But in 2016, in arguably the best managing job of his career, Collins miraculously kept the decimated Mets within striking distance of a playoff spot all season. And when they finally got a bit healthier — most notably by welcoming Cespedes back into the lineup — they won 27 of their final 40 games to earn the top wild-card spot in the National League.
The pessimists will likely remember Collins for allowing himself to be talked out of pulling Harvey in Game 5 of the World Series against Kansas City, for his unwillingness to play small ball, for any other number of questionable in-game decisions or his sometimes-rambling news conferences.
But what Collins should be remembered for is being a class act and a true professional who took it on the chin for several years while the Mets’ brass figured out a path forward.
But most of all, he should be remembered as a survivor, because he was dealt plenty of crummy hands and somehow stayed in the game far longer that we ever expected.
Because even though he wasn’t Davey Johnson or Joe Torre or Tony La Russa, he was a heck of a lot better at this managing thing than we ever anticipated back in the fall of 2010.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryanchatelain