It took the Mets manager four decades to get to the World Series. Now one decision in the fateful Game 5 defines him—but not in the way you'd expect
This is an article from the Feb. 1, 2016 issue
"NO, NO," TERRY COLLINS said. "I lived it. I don't have to see it anymore."
A tablet sat at the ready, cued up to video of one of the most controversial managerial decisions to ever end a World Series, and, thanks to his ace turned advocate, easily the most visible. It was one month since the Mets manager left Matt Harvey in to pitch the ninth inning of Game 5 against the Royals, and refused to pull him after a leadoff walk.
But Collins did look. He watched the video for the first time. He did so for two reasons. One, Collins said he sealed off the pain weeks ago.
"I had my bad three days," he said. "I let it bother me for three days, and I said, 'Look, you've got to move on or you're going to kill yourself over this. It's over.'"
Two, you have to understand the price Collins paid just to be in that dugout. You have to understand what it meant for someone who had been one of baseball's last drill sergeants to look into the eyes of one of his players and defer to his heart.
Three score and six years it took Collins to reach his first World Series. Among all managers, only 2003 Marlins skipper Jack McKeon, then 72 years old, had more life behind him when he finally made it. The 66 years it took Collins, the last five as manager of the Mets, made for an epic travelogue built more on striving and loss than on fame.
The itinerary included three marriages, 13 organizations, managing gigs in Mexico, Venezuela, Japan and Duluth, and so many long nights spent on minor league buses that he learned how to sleep in overhead luggage racks, the one perk of being 5'9" after constantly hearing he was too small to amount to much. As a minor league infielder, Collins once went 52 days without getting into a game, which wasn't even the low point of his playing career—that would be when he quit baseball at age 29 to go home to Midland, Mich., to play softball.
As Collins stood on the third base line at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City before Game 1 of the World Series in October, the loss that came to mind was that of his father eight months earlier. Loran (Bud) Collins, a labor relations chief for Dow Chemical in Midland, died at 95 after a lengthy illness. It was a long goodbye, vastly different from when Terry's mother, Choyce, died suddenly 30 years earlier.
Looking up into the triple-decked horseshoe of people, an intimate memory washed over Collins. He remembered a Saturday morning in Midland—the day high school baseball tryouts began—when he walked into the family kitchen and saw on the table a gift from his father: a new baseball glove.
"Standing on that line, that's when I thought about him," Collins said. "Boy, wouldn't he be excited to see this! Because I would have made sure [he was there], even though he was 95. He would have gotten to see it firsthand. He'd have been very proud."
There is no happy ending to this story. Not in an obvious way, anyway—not like the one for McKeon, who was rewarded for his own controversial decision to stick with a young ace in the clinching game of a World Series. McKeon started Josh Beckett on short rest in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium. Beckett threw a complete-game shutout.
Harvey retired neither of the two batters Collins let him face in the ninth of Game 5. Both scored, tying the game. The Royals won the Series with five runs in the 12th inning. Collins immediately took the blame for letting Harvey pitch the ninth inning, and still does.
"Certainly the Harvey decision is the only thing that stays with me," he said.
A man spends a lifetime of honest effort trying to get to the World Series, and when he gets there, 16 years after he quit in tears from what he assumed would be his last managing job, he is defined by a decision that blew up on him. It sounds cruelly unfair, until you understand that in that definition you can find more victory than defeat.
Collins and his pitching coach, Dan Warthen, had formed a plan to ward off elimination in Game 5: Harvey would pitch seven innings, and Jeurys Familia, the closer, would pitch the last two. They had talked about it all day, and even the night before, after the Mets lost Game 4.
Harvey, who declined to talk to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for this story, is as Broadway as baseball gets in New York. Every inning of every Harvey start bubbled with drama, not only because of his attacking pitching style but also because of the machinations and complications that came with pitching his first season after Tommy John surgery. His agent, Scott Boras, hung a sword of Damocles over Harvey's head in September when he suggested that the Mets would be "putting the player in peril" if they let him throw more than 180 innings, a hard innings cap that the agent claimed was set by Harvey's surgeon, James Andrews.
Harvey entered Game 5 with 208 innings. Watching the Mets carefully juggle Harvey's innings was like watching a circus performer juggle chain saws; every move seemed fraught with potential disaster. It showed in the days of rest New York scripted for his last seven starts of the year: 11, five, six, eight, four, nine and four.
That night at Citi Field, however, Harvey was brilliant. Through seven innings he had allowed no runs and four hits while throwing only 93 pitches. He was so good that Collins amended the game plan to allow him to pitch the eighth inning.
Harvey kept mowing down Royals hitters. He cruised through the eighth, getting three fly ball outs on just nine pitches. He looked in control. But in the other dugout, the Royals evaluated Harvey differently.
"We saw in the eighth inning his pitches were getting up," said Kansas City hitting coach Dale Sveum. "His slider was flattening out. It had lost its tilt. We had some pitches to hit and just missed them."
Collins had pushed Harvey one more inning than he had planned. He did not want to risk another. He decided Harvey was done as soon as Ben Zobrist flied out to centerfield for the final out of the eighth. Watching from his perch on the home plate end of the first base dugout, Collins could tell from his pitcher's confident, prowling posture that a confrontation loomed.
"I saw him walk off the field," Collins said, "and he was bound and determined that he was going back out there. I could tell when he walked in the dugout."
Collins turned to his pitching coach. "That's enough. We're going to go to Familia."
"Leave him in," Warthen said.
"Listen, we've talked about if we get to this point, that Jeurys needs to be in the game."
"Well, it's your call, but he's fine."
Warthen left the home plate end of the dugout to deliver the news to Harvey at the opposite end. It did not go well.
"I just glanced down," Collins said. "I saw Matt coming. I said, 'O.K., we got a little discussion on our hands here.'"
Like no other sport, baseball venerates its elders. "Baseball lifer" is a term of endearment, often reserved for the silver-haired veterans who still put on short pants, a numbered jersey and a cap, the same as when they were boys off to play Little League games. This trick of accumulating wisdom but maintaining the illusion of youth can be seen in the long tradition of managers who are identifiable by just one diminutive name that would fit in an elementary school playground: Connie, Bobby, Sparky, Bucky, Casey, Tommy, Tony, Whitey, Billy et al.
Terry Lee Collins may not have needed his given name amended, but a baseball lifer is what he is. This is what first drew Jim Leyland to Collins. Leyland, then the Pittsburgh manager, hired Collins away from the Dodgers to manage Buffalo, the Pirates' Triple A team, for the 1989 season.
"The wave has changed a little as we speak now," said Leyland, noting how managers often are hired these days with little to no minor league experience. "But one thing you know about somebody that grinds it out in the minor leagues as a manager or coach, is they love the game. That was all over Terry Collins's face: how much he loved the game and he wanted a chance to succeed at it at a higher level, probably not knowing if that chance would ever come."
Collins had managed eight years in the Dodgers' system without once being invited to the major league spring training camp. Leyland immediately asked Collins to help run the Pirates' big league camp, and Collins quickly gained his trust, so much so that Leyland promised to consider him whenever a position opened on his staff. He gave Collins his first big league job in 1992 as the Pirates' bullpen coach.
"What happened in my career," Collins said, "would not have happened without Jim Leyland."
Collins had started his pro career with the Pirates as a 19th-round draft pick in 1971, the year after he won the NAIA national championship playing shortstop for Eastern Michigan University. The Pirates released him after three seasons in which he hit .260 with two home runs. Harding Peterson, the Pirates' minor league director, advised Collins to call Bill Schweppe, the Dodgers' vice president of minor league operations. Peterson knew Schweppe had taken a liking to Collins while scouting a game in Waterbury, Conn., home to the Dodgers' Double A affiliate. As the late Schweppe once explained, "I knew he wasn't a prospect because he wasn't playing every game. It wasn't anything he did as far as base hits or anything. It was just the aura he created and the way he did his job."
Schweppe signed Collins to play at Waterbury in 1974 and the next year moved him to Triple A Albuquerque, where he spent four seasons, the last two as a player-coach. Collins averaged only 64 games per year. Stymied at age 29, he quit baseball to return to Midland, where he played shortstop for the Midland McArdle Pontiac-Cadillac fast-pitch softball team.
"I had never played softball before," Collins said.
Midway through the season, the sponsor fired his manager and appointed Collins the player-manager. Collins led the team to the National Fastpitch Softball Championship. It defeated York Barbell of Reading, Pa., 1--0 and 3--1, in the finals in front of 9,500 fans in Midland.
On the field after the title game, Collins told a reporter for the Midland Daily News, Paul Neumeyer, that he would not return the following season.
"Why not?" Neumeyer asked.
Replied the 30-year-old softball player in total seriousness, "I want to be a major league manager."
You gotta let me stay in the game! You gotta let me stay in the game!"
Collins could see Harvey was agitated.
"Look, we're going to discuss this—you and I—like we always do, and make a decision here. But we're going to calm down here for a second before we discuss this."
"You know, we had this set up to ..."
Harvey cut him off.
"Terry, this is my night! I gotta get them! I feel fine. I feel great. This is my game. You gotta let me go out there!"
Collins not only heard the words but, as he said, "I saw the passion in his eyes that said, I want this game."
There was one more element Collins considered. Ever since Boras broke the seal on the innings limit controversy, Harvey had pitched under pressure, including inciting the wrath of Mets fans who saw a seemingly healthy ace bailing out on his team when it needed him the most. The Daily News called him HARVEY TWO-FACE in a back-page headline. Collins had told Harvey in September, "The only way you're going to get out of this is you pitch good. That'll change everything."
Collins remembered that conversation as Harvey argued with him in the dugout.
"And here was his chance," Collins says. "Here was his chance to do the thing that he wanted to do more than anything, and that is, to win. Win a big game for us and show everybody, Look, what had happened is in the past, and I want to compete, and I want to help this team be successful.
"And so all that flashed through my mind. It's the kid's chance to show everybody who he really is, the guy I know he is. And that's a tremendous competitor, and innings limits are not really something he cares about. All he cares about is winning."
"Fine," Collins told him. "I trust you. You got it. Now go out and get it done."
On Nov. 17, 1993, 14 years after managing the Midland McArdle Pontiac-Cadillac softball team, Collins realized his dream of being a big league manager. The Astros, after interviewing 11 candidates, hired Collins to replace Art Howe.
Even at 44, Collins was an old baseball soul, proudly telling reporters, "How long it took me to get here is a part of what I'm made of."
He was fired after three second-place seasons despite holding the best winning percentage by a manager in franchise history (.532). His team, however, twice faltered down the stretch, an occurrence that would be linked to some players' complaints to the front office about his molten intensity.
Collins was out of work for only four weeks. The Angels, looking for a firm hand, hired him as skipper over such candidates as Sparky Anderson and Joe Maddon, the team's bench coach. The Houston scenario repeated itself in Anaheim: success at a cost. Collins finished in second place in each of his first two seasons before the simmering Angels clubhouse imploded in his third year. The players turned mutinous. Said Maddon, "I remember talking to TC a lot about it, and I tried to advise him what I thought he should do. But—he admitted to it—it was kind of tough for him to change at that particular moment."
The situation broke him. With his team having lost 37 of 46 games, including nine in a row, Collins quit. He cried at his farewell press conference. "We were really starting to struggle, and as happens sometimes, fingers started to get pointed in each direction," Collins says. "And at the end I thought, Hey, look, if I'm really the reason why this team's not having success, then it's up to me to leave."
He was 50 years old and, given the taboo of quitting on a team, unlikely to ever manage again. "When I decided to resign I thought this was going to be it," he says. "You don't walk away. These jobs are hard to get. I knew you were better off being fired than you were [resigning]. But I go back to my respect for the game. It was time for me to get out."
Familia was warming in the bullpen as the Mets ended the bottom of the eighth inning. Who would take the mound, Familia or Harvey? The fans at Citi Field chanted, We want Har-vee! We want Har-vee!, evoking the fervent audience participation of the Colosseum. Suddenly Harvey bounded up the dugout steps into view. At the sight of its man, the mob exploded. Harvey sprinted to the mound and jumped on it, like a kid playing capture the flag—as odd a sight as you will ever see from a starting pitcher continuing his work.
"I realized 40,000 people were chanting his name," Collins says. "That wasn't part of the decision. The decision was this kid's passion to go back out there."
One thought came to Collins as Harvey threw his warmup pitches: If we get the first guy out, he's going to finish the game.
The first batter was Lorenzo Cain. Harvey threw a first-pitch ball but quickly recovered with two called strikes. Behind on the count 1 and 2 to Harvey, Cain was trapped in one of the most hopeless snares a hitter today could face.
Harvey is one of the best pitchers in the game not only because he has elite velocity and command but also because he has four dangerous pitches to finish off hitters—a veritable medicine cabinet of arsenic, lye, cyanide and hemlock. His fastball accounted for a little more than half of his strikeouts in 2015 (57%) according to Brooks Baseball, while he deployed his slider (18%), curveball (14%) and changeup (12%) nearly equally for the other third strikes.
Here is how dire the situation looked for Cain: There are 202 active pitchers who have made at least 50 career starts. A hitter's chance of getting on base after the count reaches 1 and 2 are worse against Harvey than they are for all the rest of them—a .167 on-base percentage. (The group average is .230.)
"I think," Collins said, "he's going to strike him out."
Cain took the next pitch for a ball, fouled off the one after that and took another ball. Now the count was full. "When he got to 3 and 2," Collins says, "I will tell you, the first thing in my mind is, Hey, just don't walk the guy. Make him swing the bat if he's going to beat you."
Harvey decided to throw Cain a slider. He had thrown 19 full-count sliders all season and had missed with four of them. This one also missed.
"Would I have thrown him a slider? No," Collins says. "But it's not the pitch. It's the location of the pitch. If it's a strike, he gets him out. He may get him out with a fastball. He may not. But I just didn't ... When you're up two runs, I thought you've got to make the guy swing. He can't beat you. He can't hit a two-run homer. But you know, that's easy to say after the fact."
The walk drastically changed the game's calculus. Collins faced a new decision. Now Harvey was pitching out of the stretch (batters hit 46 points higher against him with runners on than with the bases empty in 2015) after throwing 109 pitches and with the tying run, Eric Hosmer, in the batter's box.
As much as Collins to this day regrets his decision to send Harvey back to the mound in the ninth, he has no second thoughts about leaving him in after the walk.
"No, no," Collins says. "I'm not a big believer if you're going to send a guy out there and the first guy gets on you go get him. If that's the case, you shouldn't send him out there to begin with. So I just go, 'O.K., we'll get the next guy.' Because he pitched Hosmer great the entire game."
Harvey had struck out Hosmer twice and retired him on a ground ball. He had held Hosmer hitless in five career at bats, all in the World Series, with one walk. The two of them had played travel baseball together—they were high school standouts who roomed together in Ohio, as their team won the 2007 Connie Mack World Series. Harvey won the clincher, and Hosmer took home the MVP award.
Cain stole second base easily on the first pitch, a called strike. Hosmer knew about Harvey's pride and ferocious competitive streak. He knew that after Harvey lost Cain on a slider, and having lost his margin of error, Harvey was going to challenge him. In Hosmer's mind he reduced Harvey to a one-pitch pitcher.
"I knew he didn't want to get beat by something other than his fastball," Hosmer says.
Now Hosmer and Collins pushed all their chips onto the same number on the table: Both bet everything on Harvey's iron will. But there was one key piece of the new calculus that worked against Collins.
As impressively as Harvey can throw a baseball, he is a product of the modern bias against letting starting pitchers throw deep into games. The industry has adopted a philosophy that has pitchers throwing less in order to preserve their arms, while turning more of the game over to deeper, specialized bullpens. Harvey is 26 years old and a tank of a man at 6'4" and about 220 pounds, yet he has thrown only one complete game in 115 professional starts. By comparison, Roger Clemens, the similarly built ace Harvey admired in his youth, threw 38 complete games in his first 115 pro starts.
Harvey found himself in a spot for which the Mets had never prepared him. He had faced 1,798 batters in the major leagues but only two of them in the ninth inning with a runner on base. And those occurred with far more wiggle room: a 5--0 lead in a meaningless game against Colorado in August 2013, and with a six-run lead against the Yankees last April.
The cold fact was that Harvey had been treated with kid gloves before and after his surgery. He was not a finisher. The batting average against Harvey over his career was .206 from pitches one through 100 but skyrocketed to .373 thereafter. His 111th pitch of the game, in his 216th inning after having thrown none the previous season, was exactly what Hosmer expected: a 94-mph fastball. Hosmer pounced, hammering a long fly ball that carved away from leftfielder Michael Conforto for a double.
"When the ball was hit, I thought we could catch it," Collins says. "And then it really took off on him. And then I said, 'O.K., you know, hopefully we get Familia in here and just hold them for one run and win the game.' I never said, 'Well, I shouldn't have sent him out there.'"
Collins saved that second guess for after the game, after Hosmer had dashed home with the tying run on a wild throw by first baseman Lucas Duda and after the Royals produced another avalanche of a rally in the 12th. Collins walked into the postgame news conference after losing the World Series for which he had waited his whole life and took the blame.
"Sometimes," he said, "you let your heart dictate your mind."
Until the ninth inning of Game 5, Collins spent most of his sprawling baseball life out of the limelight. When Francisco Cabrera of the Braves beat the Pirates with a two-run single in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series—the only time in baseball postseason history a team went from winning the pennant to losing the pennant on one pitch with one out to go—Collins watched his World Series dream disappear from the Pittsburgh bullpen.
"God, it broke your heart," he says. "It just crushed you. And the walk from the bullpen into the dugout with all those people screaming and going crazy and then to walk into that clubhouse ... I've never seen a scene like that. They just sat in front of their lockers all stunned."
After he quit as Angels manager, Collins took a job as an advance scout for the Cubs in 2000, as anonymous as baseball jobs get. It was the first of eight jobs in seven organizations over the next 11 years, including stints as manager of the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, the Chinese World Baseball Classic team and the Duluth Huskies, a summer college baseball team he skippered as a favor to a friend.
"If I didn't manage [in the majors] again, I was O.K. with that because I was the one who decided to get out," Collins says.
Then one day following the 2010 season, after Mets general manager Omar Minaya hired him that winter as the team's minor league field coordinator, Sandy Alderson, Minaya's replacement, asked Collins to manage the team.
"I was very surprised," Collins says. "I was very excited about it, to get another opportunity because through the years I have changed as a person and as a baseball guy, changed the way I looked at players, changed the way I went about things and thought, You know what? I'm going to enjoy this more.
"I'm not going to make this such a relentless thing that ultimately the success of the team is going to determine how well I did. It's more, how much can I get the players better?"
COLLINS SOUGHT out Harvey in the clubhouse after the game. It was a brief meeting.
"I'm proud of you," the manager said.
"Hey, look, I thought it was ... I needed a ... I wanted to go back out there."
"I understand. We'll all learn from it."
Minutes later, when Collins sat down to meet the media, the first question was about leaving Harvey in the game. He answered bluntly: "It was my fault." The words came easily to Collins.
"There's no reason to sugarcoat anything," Collins says. "You know, the worst thing you can do is try to make up something that's true because it's going to come off bad. What I said is what happened.
"I know I'm going to face the question a lot more times. But you know what? It's over with."
When Collins quit baseball in 1979, his father asked him why.
"Because maybe it's time to get a real job."
"Hey, look," Bud said. "A lot of us, we've had to do jobs because we were required to have jobs. You get to do something you love to do on a daily basis. You've had a ball in your hands since you could walk. If it's not fun, get out. But as long as it's still fun, you should stay with it."
So Collins went back to baseball the next year. "Without that advice, I wouldn't be here," he says. "I would have probably been a high school coach someplace and, knowing my personality, would have looked back and said, 'It was my decision to leave, but....' I certainly don't regret staying in, even though there were some tough times along the way."
The years softened the baseball lifer. Working for the Dodgers and the Mets as minor league field coordinator changed him. He had never seen rookie ball before, never seen players so raw—16-year-old pitchers who didn't even know what a pitching rubber was. As a failed manager with the Astros and the Angels, Collins wanted players to care as much as he did. He wanted to change them overnight and had no patience when it didn't happen on his time. Seeing the lowest rung on the baseball ladder, Collins learned patience.
When Alderson hired him to manage the Mets, Collins made another significant change. Instead of pushing his players hard, he would empower his clubhouse leaders to create a loose atmosphere. In 2015 those leaders were Harvey, David Wright, Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer.
"I've got to make sure certain guys are having fun here because they will dictate how the clubhouse is run," he says, "and that's what I did wrong in Anaheim."
Says Bill Bavasi, the general manager who hired Collins in Anaheim, "You know when you're talking to Terry you're talking to somebody who's going to tell you the truth. He has the ability to say something in the most frank terms and not offend. I find that incredible, especially in baseball.
"Probably the most impressive thing about Terry is that he has made a conscious effort to do things very differently later in life. That's so difficult for most people—to be one way for so long and then at an older age admit, 'I have to do things differently.' He not only did that, he made it work."
Many of the baseball lifers never had much of a playing career, including Collins, Leyland and Tony La Russa, a kindred spirit who named Collins as one of his All-Star coaches in 2012. "When you're no-names like we were," Leyland says, "you're not going to get the benefit of the doubt until you prove yourself and earn those players' respect."
Collins wears number 10 in honor of Leyland. They talked before, during and after the World Series. Leyland told him he supported his decision to stick with Harvey. "I'll tell you what I think," Leyland says. "Harvey pitched too good. There was no way he could take him out.... I know he said he went with his heart instead of his head, but it was one of those freak situations."
Says La Russa, "He showed guts and he showed ... humanity, as the pitcher came out and said, 'Man, I've got to go back out there.' And later on [Harvey] probably should have been out there with a short rope, and once he walked the first guy maybe he shouldn't have faced the second guy, but I totally empathize with him."
It's an interesting word, rarely ascribed to a manager. And it's not a concept you could find on the front pages of the New York tabloids on the morning after the defeat. (AMAZIN' DISGRACE, wailed the Post; THE DARKEST KNIGHT, moaned the News.) Two days later the Mets gave Collins a two-year contract extension.
"I was pretty tired when the season was over, mentally and physically," Collins says. "I don't think I've ever been that tired before, so I wanted to make sure I rested up this winter because this game deserves all you can give it. At the end of next season, we'll see how it is, and if it's time, it's time. I won't know until then."
Humanity may be the best word for what happened in the dugout on the night of Nov. 1, 2015.
"I've changed enough to know you've got to trust your players," Collins says. "Throughout history there will be decisions you wish you didn't make. I'll get through it. I'll be fine. I look back on all those years in baseball that I've been in. I don't have to apologize for anything. I worked hard for what I got. I've had a great life.
"I still talk to high school kids today, and I talk about chasing dreams, and I truly believe it. The only thing you've got to understand is sometimes they don't come easy. But when you ultimately get there, it's worth every step of the way."
If Collins is defined by the moment when the World Series spotlight finally found him, a moment when victory curdled into defeat, then this baseball lifer is fine with that. What he said 22 years ago upon first getting his dream job as a major league manager is even more true today: "How long it took me to get here is a part of what I'm made of."