When I heard that Terry Collins was a front runner for the Mets' managerial vacancy, I had to admit I was firmly in the "Terry who?" camp. His previous stints heading a team coincided with my collegiate years, during which the attention I paid to baseball was minimal at best. Were it not for the 1999 Mets, I might have remained in this benighted mental state.
I was completely unaware that Collins had presided over a complete train wreck of a season when he managed the 1999 (then) California Angels, but Rob Castellano's article on this site and Adam Rubin's tweets over this past weekend intrigued me. When it comes to sports narratives, I don't find tales of triumph half as compelling as tales of chaos and failure. So I decided to dig a little and get some more details on exactly what happened to this team. And the more I dug, the more I found some disturbing parallels with the Mets of recent vintage.
The Angels' biggest off-season acquisition was slugger Mo Vaughn, a former AL MVP who was happy to flee the Red Sox. ("Playing in Boston was like adding dog years to my life," he said.) Apart from his bat, he was seen as a good clubhouse guy, somebody who could combat the negative feelings that surrounded the team. During spring training, shortstop Gary DiSarcina went as far as to say, "This is already Mo Vaughn's clubhouse." Vaughn would add some pop to a lineup that included Jim Edmonds, Troy Glaus, Garrett Anderson, and Darin Erstad.
The Angels failed to sign free agent aces like Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson, so they settled for high-intensity starter TIm Belcher, who was seen as the kind of hard-working, kick-ass player the Angels needed. Though he was a serviceable pitcher and had won a World Series with the Dodgers in 1988, Belcher's biggest claim to fame thus far was nearly challenging umpire Ed Montague to a fight. The staff was backed by Troy Percival, owner of 42 saves in 1998 and one of the better closers in the game at the time.
Expectations were high for the Angels going into the 1999 season. Sports Illustrated picked them to finish first in the AL West, and they were far from the only ones. Unfortunately, the team faced adversity almost immediately. Under such circumstances, some teams band together, cultivating an us vs. the world mentality, and use this feeling to power through the tough times. The Angels were not such a team.
If you wanted an omen about how this season would go, you could point to the freak injury Di Sarcina suffered in spring training. He caught a hitting instructor's fungo backswing, which broke his forearm and put him out of action until June. If that didn't convince you, perhaps you'd have been swayed on opening day, when Vaughn chased a foul ball into the visiting dugout, slipped on the steps, and sprained his ankle, putting himself out of commission for 15 days. The Angels won the game, but the year was all downhill from there.
The biggest blow came at the end of April, when Edmonds opted for shoulder surgery that would put him out of commission for at least four months. The cause was a chronic condition he'd been trying to manage for several seasons, to no avail. That news was bad enough, but it was made worse by his teammates' reaction. Many Angels, named and unnamed, made it clear they were not pleased that Edmonds chose to get the surgery at that time rather than during the offseason. Vaughn even called Edmonds out (though not by name). "Some guys want to get better, some don't," he said. "Some play with pain, some don't. The bottom line is, you have an obligation to the guys who are paying you and to the guys who are playing to get better."
For his part, Edmonds admitted he wished he'd gotten the surgery in the offseason, or even sooner than that, but he'd played the entire 1998 season on a pair of knees that had just been operated on. He also feared getting his shoulder taken care of, and trying to play on a body that had undergone so much surgery in so little time.
Aside from robbing the team of one of its better players, the Edmonds kerfuffle revealed a deeply divided clubhouse and watered some seeds of discontent that had been sown in 1998. Despite putting up monstrous numbers the previous September while the rest of the lineup struggled, his subdued demeanor led teammates and writers to question his dedication to winning. Add that insult to the anger over his shoulder surgery, and it seemed highly likely that Edmonds and Anaheim would part ways after the season.
Tim Salmon went down with a wrist injury on May 1, and the team went right down with him. By the end of the month, they were firmly in last place and would remain there for the rest of the year. Vaughn tried to save the sinking ship with a player's-only meeting, which apparently went over like a lead balloon. Vaughn's ankle injury had reduced him to DH duty, and that, plus being the new guy in town, earned him some resentment from his teammates.
But when Collins signed a two-year extension in June, the players turned their ire on the manager. A number of them confronted general manager Bill Bavasi about the move, which he did not appreciate, and then brought their gripes to the press, which he liked even less.(Bavasi was already upset that news of the extension leaked in the first place.) Reportedly, this faction of players bristled under Collins' tough-nosed managerial style and wanted him gone, not extended.
The anti-Collins faction did not get their wish, and with their mutiny thwarted, the players protested a different way. After the extension announcement, the Angels proceeded to go 21-44 over their next 65 games, including an 11-game losing streak, which put them on pace for the worst finish in franchise history.
The nadir came on September 1, when the Angels gave up 10 runs to the Indians in the eighth inning and saw a 12-4 lead turn into a 14-12 deficit. The onslaught was capped by a three-run Richie Sexson homer off of Percival, who responded by hitting the very next batter, David Justice. Justice charged the mound and flung his helmet at Percival, hitting the pitcher in the head.
A bench-clearing brawl ensued, but didn't include enough players to satisfy some of the Angels. Vaughn did not join the melee, saying he was in the clubhouse and could not reach the field in time. Percival slammed him for it afterwards, and the two men nearly fought it out in the locker room. Other Angels, led by Di Sarcina, confronted Collins and refused to play in the same lineup as Vaughn the next game. Faced with the second potential mutiny of the season, Collins benched Vaughn, which infuriated the slugger.
The whole sordid incident was the last straw for Collins, who resigned from the team shortly thereafter, despite the freshly inked two-year extension. "Yesterday in Cleveland, I had to address a couple of issues again and was unable to talk about the game, and that's when it hit me," Collins said. "I won't miss the bickering bick·er
intr.v. bick·ered, bick·er·ing, bick·ers
1. To engage in a petty, bad-tempered quarrel; squabble. See Synonyms at argue.
..... Click the link for more information.."
At the time, the press seemed to come down on Collins' side and blame the players for the meltdown. Not all fans agreed. I asked Rev Halofan of Halos Heaven how this season looked from a fan's perspective, and he had this to say:
Terry Collins might be the biggest idiot to ever manage the Angels....I bought season seats with lots of hope going into the 1999 season and Terry Collins still owes me a refund.
Terry Collins did not manage. He demanded. He was an aggro, intense alpha male caricature of a leader and it annoyed every player and, when the disastrous 1999 season began to unfold, angered enough of them that a mutiny was set into place. He lost the team by midseason and they turned on him so harshly, so thoroughly, that he cried at the press conference when he realized that he had been "defriended" by just about every single person with a clubhouse pass.
You want to know what Terry Collins was like as a manger? Watch the part of Full Metal Jacket with the drill seargent in basic training. Watch the Geico commercial about the guy going to therapy with a drill seargant. By all accounts, Terry Collins was a tightly wound drill seargent.
But Collins' managerial style was not just evident in 1999. That was when it was exposed for everyone to see. Consider that in August of 1997, Tony Philips was busted for smoking cocaine in a seedy motel. The team was contending. Now these things happen, but both the 97 and 98 teams faded in the last 45 days of the season and having Napoleon 24/7 could not have helped in every circumstance.
His jersey number was "1". Think about that. He was the kind of jerk who would wear Number One as a symbol that he was number one. No chance he could lead by example, he had to lead by jersey number. The only good thing that I can say about Terry Collins was that he got my team to its revolution a lot quicker. Maybe you think that you need that. You don't.
What I find most fascinating--and depressingly familiar--about the Angels' meltdown is how public it was. GM Bavasi spoke openly more than once about the team's "bad chemistry." The players themselves were more than happy to bitch about the manager, the front office, and one another to the press, both by name and as background. The bulk of the players' anger was directed at the team's two best players, Edmonds (for being "aloof" and not playing through injury) and Vaughn (for trying too hard to be the leader everyone wanted him to be).
The parallels to the Mets should be pretty obvious. Both teams were willing and able to spend money, but did not do so with any kind of philosophy, as if simply acquiring Names was enough. Both teams suffered a rash of injuries that could be blamed in some cases on relying on older players and in other cases as just plain bad luck, but were poorly equipped to deal with the regardless of the cause. Both teams had an athletic centerfielder who was blasted by some in the press for "not caring enough".
And both teams were said to be lacking a certain grit/toughness/guts/heart/euphemism of your choice. It was said that the Angels' "core" needed to be changed, a choice of word and line of thinking that should be familiar to anyone who listens to WFAN. Once the 1999 season concluded, team president Tony Tavares was vocal and virulent in his criticism of the team. "I've been pretty annoyed and embarrassed by the things coming out of the locker room this year," he said. "Maybe we have to look at how we're training guys, and I'm not talking about fielding ground balls or pitching, but whether or not players have the traits that are necessary to win on a consistent basis." He also referred to the clubhouse as "a day-care center".
I have no strong feelings about the rumored Mets managerial candidates. The only guy I'd love to see at the helm is Bobby Valentine, and beyond that pipe dream, I can't say I'm strongly for or against anyone else. I guess I have some skepticism about Wally Backman's qualifications beyond once getting really dirty for the '86 Mets. However, now that Sandy Alderson and the Nerd Trifecta are in charge in the Mets' front office, I feel fairly confident that their choice will be a good one regardless of who they pick.
But learning about the 1999 Angels gives me pause. Was Collins totally responsible for what happened? I can't say that, but when something like this happens under your watch, you have to take at least some responsibility for the mess. Whether he deserved it or not, the Angels' open revolt against him was pretty remarkable, and at the very least raises questions about his leadership skills.
Ironically, Collins was exactly the kind of fiery, tough-nosed manager the Angels seemed to want, yet the team completely collapsed under his tutelage. Perhaps Collins' attitude and approach would work better on a younger team, which the Mets more or less are now. The praise he's received for his work with the minor league system would indicate so. But I wonder if the Mets, with collapses and meltdowns of their own not too far in the rearview mirror, are well served by someone whose last managerial stint ended with his players taking the wheel and driving into a ditch.