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Terry Collins and Mets looking to avoid another September collapse

Mets manager Terry Collins has another shot at reaching the postseason, but can he and New York avoid another September collapse?

Terry Collins gets another September. Given his history with that month, that may sound like giving the Bills another Super Bowl or Charlie Brown another kick with Lucy as his holder. But this, Collins will tell you himself, is a different Terry Collins, with a chance he never thought he would get again as a manager.

The last month of the regular season begins with Collins, 66, as the manager of the team with the biggest first-place lead in the National League, the New York Mets. Just six years ago, his career was so dead in the water that he took a job with no pay to manage a bunch of amateurs in a summer collegiate league. He agreed to manage the struggling Duluth Huskies late in the summer of 2009 as a favor to a friend, Bobby McCarthy, the owner of the team whom Collins knew from hanging out at McCarthy’s bar in Vero Beach, Fla.

“I did get my expenses paid,” Collins said with a chuckle. “And I had a blast. It was only 18 games or so [actually 14] but I loved it. I felt like I could make a difference. These are college players with professional aspirations. They asked a lot of questions about what it takes to make it in pro ball.

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“I had [Rays pitcher] Drew Smyly there. He asked me exactly that question. I told him, ‘You’ve got the stuff, but so do a lot of guys. The difference is command. You have to be able to command your stuff.’ I enjoyed the area and everything about that summer. You really felt like you could make a difference, even in a short period of time.”

Two months later, Mets general manager Omar Minaya, who had interviewed Collins in 2006 when he hired Willie Randolph as manager, chose Collins to run New York’s minor-league system. A year later, Sandy Alderson, who succeeded Minaya as GM, gave Collins the third managerial chance for which he had lost hope. Collins won out over Wally Backman, Chip Hale and Bob Melvin. The Mets wanted Collins’s experience and they wanted his edge, of which in his two previous managerial jobs he showed too much.

Alderson hired a smart baseball man who bombed in all three of his tries at managing a team through a pennant race. Here are the only meaningful Septembers for Collins in his two previous gigs:

The 1996 Astros collapsed. They entered September in first place with a 2 1/2-game lead, only to go 8–17 and finish six games out.

The 1997 Angels collapsed. They entered September in second place with a one-game deficit, only to go 10–15 and finish six games out.

The 1998 Angels collapsed. They entered September in first place with a three-game lead, only to go 9–15 and finish three games out.

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The sum of three Septembers that meant anything for Collins: 27–47 (.365) with 19 1/2 games lost in the standings.

Houston fired Collins after the 1996 collapse. He quit the Angels in '99 with 29 games remaining in the season, doing so in the face of a near mutiny from his players.

I asked Collins if his downfall from those years was expecting that his players should be as intense as himself.

“No doubt,” he said. “I had always heard that with teams, the players will adopt the personality of the manager. I found out that’s not true. They are who they are. You have to adjust to them.”

Make no mistake: Collins still is intense. One major league coach recently told me, “I know it’s New York, but those [staff] guys in that dugout have to relax a little bit. You look over there during a game and they’re all pacing and jittery.” But Collins is but an ember of the raging fire he was in Houston and Anaheim.

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Indeed, his steady hand on a club that plays in that weird place between Mets fans’ dread and disdain—a place Alderson so aptly christened Panic City—is worthy of the NL Manager of the Year Award. (Mike Matheny has done an amazing job steering the injury-plagued Cardinals, and Joe Maddon of the Cubs is every bit the biggest free-agent signing I predicted. Both are right there with Collins with one month to play.)

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Collins lost his captain (David Wright) for four months and his closer (Jenrry Mejia), a starting pitcher (Zack Wheeler) and eight relievers (Vic Black, Jerry Blevins, Buddy Carlyle, Josh Edgin, Erik Goeddel, Jack Leathersich, Rafael Montero and Bobby Parnell) for most or all of the season. He and pitching coach Dan Warthen have superbly negotiated the innings of young guns Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. And Collins somehow kept the Mets’ heads above water at 52–50 with a putrid offense until Alderson was able to trade for hitters like Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson and, most importantly, Yoenis Cespedes.

And there are no mutinies. Collins is better not just for his experience, but also for the professionalism in the Mets’ clubhouse. Wright is the unquestioned leader; Harvey told me his own presence as a leader of the pitching staff is built on the model he learned from watching Wright. Uribe and Michael Cuddyer are the old pros that provide the humor needed over a long season. Cuddyer is the one who after each win presents a WWE-style championship belt in the clubhouse to the “champion of the game.” One night in Philadelphia, when Cuddyer deserved the honor, and just as Collins was wondering how Cuddyer could present the belt to himself, Uribe came bounding out of the shower wearing the belt.

Cespedes, meanwhile, has done much more than just become the badly-needed lineup linchpin. He is also a strong presence with his rare batting skills that are almost as good as his his golf game (one day he walked 18 holes at Merion and had two hits that night in Philadelphia; another time in Denver he played a par five with driver-gap wedge thanks to a 410-yard drive) and, especially, his iron will.

When Cespedes arrived with New York on Aug. 1 after his trade from Detroit the day before, Collins sat him down in his Citi Field office and told the leftfielder, “You know, I may want to play you some in centerfield. Do you mind playing centerfield?”

Cespedes looked him in the eye and told Collins sternly, “I am a centerfielder.”

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In an age when managers have become middle managers—as general managers like to hire young managers with no experience to take orders and implement their team philosophy—Collins, the oldest manager in the game, is reminding us that experience does matter in the job. He is an older version of Ned Yost, another guy once known to ride his team too hard (he was fired by the Brewers in September 2008 with his team in playoff position) who changed his approach and finally made the postseason last year. Since divisional play began in 1969, only Frank Robinson has managed more games than Collins without getting to the playoffs.

Listen to Boston interim manager Torey Lovullo for further evidence of why managers matter. Lovullo, 50, could be the next Maddon, a baseball lifer and well-rounded thinker who has paid his dues and then some, who someday will make somebody look smart for hiring him in the role full-time. Lovullo took over a lost Red Sox team from his cancer-stricken friend, John Farrell, and has it playing good, smart baseball despite Boston being far out of the playoff race. He has been interviewed seven times for a managing job and seven times lost out to somebody else. He played for seven managers in eight years as a .224 lifetime hitter, and was smart enough to file away what worked and what did not.

Lovullo calls his first manager, Sparky Anderson, “my baseball father.” Anderson was such a caring man, Lovullo said, that he occasionally would tell his players to call their parents and thank them and tell them they loved them. As Mother’s Day approached, Anderson would remind them to get their cards in the mail early enough to arrive on time. It was never just about baseball with Sparky.

“I didn’t want to let the man down,” said Lovullo about Anderson, who once called Lovullo the best young player he had seen since Johnny Bench. “The harder I tried the worse I did.”

From his last manager, Terry Francona, Lovullo said he learned, “how to communicate with players, and how to have a feel for the moment—like how to lighten things up as the going gets tenser.”

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It is an important lesson Collins has learned on his own. His Mets have a 6 1/2-game lead on a vapid Washington team with 31 games to play. This September will be unlike any other for Collins. Sure, you can say New York is vulnerable because of the ghosts of 2007 and '08, when it blew sizable division leads in the final weeks, or because it can't play the Phillies every day, even if it seems that way. (The Mets are an incredible 23–1 against the three last place teams in the NL—Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Colorado—and 50–57 against the rest of baseball.) But New York is too complete and its manager too evolved to worry about ghosts and quirks.

Collins has been to the postseason once before. He was the bullpen coach for the 1992 Pirates under manager Jim Leyland. Pittsburgh held a 2–0 lead just three outs away from reaching the World Series in Game 7 of the NLCS in Atlanta. It held a 2–1 lead needing just one out to get to the World Series. That’s when victory became defeat with one swing by Braves pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera. It was the last time Collins was in uniform for a postseason game.

This year, there are some nights at Citi Field, such as when the Mets finished a three-game sweep of the Nationals to catch them for first place on Aug. 2, when Collins thinks about Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Those are the nights when Citi Field sounds like it never did before. This is, after all, the first time New York has fielded a winning team in its seven-year-old ballpark. After the Mets lost one million paid customers just since the park opened, this year attendance is up 4,601 fans per game—only the Royals have seen a bigger such jump. It equals a 17% boost with 14 September dates still to come, including six against the Yankees and Nationals. The noise that swells and rises in Flushing is the sound of a revival meeting, a cacophony of joy and belief again. It’s a sound that has been a long time coming for the 66-year-old Collins.

“Even Game 7 in Atlanta wasn’t like this,” Collins said. “I’ve never heard anything like this.”