Time Out: June 2, 2010

He is a cat with nine lives, and the New York Met manager will have used up at least three or four of them by the end of May. Manuel, who guides New York’s “other” baseball team, has been the subject of almost daily media speculation as the baseball season unfolds.
A disastrous 2009 season that saw the Metropolitans lose over 90 games, had Manuel on the chopping block before the first ball was thrown in spring training. Taking the heat from a disgruntled fan base, Met owners responded by publically assigning accountability this season to Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya. The message was loud and the message was clear, in 2010, either the Mets produced or Manuel and Minaya would be history.
As is often the case, a professional baseball team’s manager is first in the firing line when things go sour on the field. The Mets got out of the gates in April painfully slowly, losing eight of their first 12 games.
The vultures circled.
Manuel used a chip and somehow survived to see his squad get hot. The Mets ticked off eight wins in a row and 10 of 11 rocketing with dizzying speed from last place to the top of the division. Then just as quickly as they rose, they plummeted.
With three of the five pitchers in their rotation underperforming, the Mets hit the skids. Losing eight of nine games, two of the three starters were placed on the disabled list with injuries and the third assigned to the bullpen. The team spiraled from first to last place and staggered home for a six-game homestand, three with the World Champion Yankees and three with the National League defending champion and hated rival Phillies.
The New York sports’ press was in a feeding frenzy. “Fire Manuel!” screamed the front-page headlines of the New York Post. “Throw Him Under the Train!” roared the back sports page of the rival Daily News. The picture only worsened in Citi Field on the first night of the Yankee series with thousands of Yankee fans standing and clapping wildly for the final out as somber, sullen Met fans sat idly by as the Bronx Bombers took the opener, 2-1.
The vultures circled.
But, a funny thing happened on the way to the execution. Unexplainably, the Mets got hot once again turning the baseball world upside down by winning the next five games against baseball’s kingpins. Adding to the mystique was three shutout performances over the Phillies, two delivered by baseball journeymen and new additions to the Mets faltering pitching rotation, knuckleballer, A.J. Dickey and a 35-year-old Japanese major league rookie, Hisonori Takahashi. Manuel used yet another chip and soldiered on.
Manuel’s up and down rollercoaster ride continued when the Mets left the friendly confines of Citi Field where they sport one of baseball’s best home field records at 19-9 and headed to Milwaukee to face the Brewers. The scoreless streak ended at 35 innings when Brewer slugger Corey Hart blasted a walk-off, two-run homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning of the series opener. Once again, Manuel was placed in the crosshairs of the second guessers as he was skewered for his decision to lift pitching ace Johan Santana after the eighth inning. Things only worsened the following day when the Mets fell 8-6 to the Brewers. This time Manuel elected to use the villainous Oliver Perez in relief, a certain failure. At 6-16, Manuel’s Mets have the worst road record in baseball.
The feathers of the vultures stir.
Through it all Manuel remains an island of calm, a picture of tranquility in a sea of storming, churning water. The much maligned and always criticized Met mentor claims that what his team needs most is calm, a confident, gentle, guiding hand, a hand that doesn’t panic every time the baseball winds change direction. Manuel claims he will not succumb to the temptations to play every game as if it’s his last, to manage solely to prevent what so many believe will be his imminent dismissal. Instead, the Mets manager elects to keep his eyes focused forward, his brain considering long term where he believes his 2010 Mets will eventually be.
For Mets fans, Manuel’s plight and their team’s performance makes great theater, a Shakespearian tragedy unfolding before their eyes. With heroes and villains the action bounces up and down.
And yes as always, the vultures circle.