After adding former Cy Young award winner Johan Santana this off-season the New York Mets again had high hopes for 2008.
With a couple blossoming stars in David Wright and Jose Reyes, veterans like Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, and a rotation with young guns John Maine and Oliver Perez alongside Santana and Pedro Martinez, the table was set for a bounce-back year following last Septembers historic collapse.
But the 2008 Mets find themselves today with nine former all-stars, but only a .500 record. As many of their players flounder, their manager finds himself under increased pressure.
Manager Willie Randolph recently suggested that race could be playing a role in the harsh treatment he has received as manager of the struggling Mets.
"Is it racial?" Randolph asked, "Huh? It smells a little bit. I don't know how to put my finger on it, but I think there's something there."
Randolph later backtracked from these statements.
"I wasn't trying to bring race into it," Randolph said. "I probably should have thought more about what I was going to say. I don't think it's about race,"
But the damage had already been done. People across the country were shocked by Randolph's comments, including former Met and current baseball analyst, Keith Hernandez.
"In my 17 years of major league baseball and 10-plus years of being up here in the booth, I've just never heard of a manager make those kinds of comments before," Hernandez said. "I'm really quite surprised that Willie made those comments."
After an incident like this, it is important to ask, why a man would make such a claim? But as a society, we need to realize that we still have a problem with race in America, no matter how much we like to hide it.
For some, forgetting the past makes dealing with the present easier. For others, the wounds of past transgressions have not fully healed. Any way you slice it, race still hovers over America like a dark cloud, even if the storms only come ever so often.
As a white American, I cannot pretend to fully understand what it is like to live as an African American in this country. There are barriers and obstacles scattered throughout the road of life that are simply invisible to somebody like me.
What I can understand is how somebody can be angered by a perceived slight. Coupled with the historical issues surrounding race in America, Randolph’s recent comments become much less outrageous and all the more forgivable.
Willie Randolph looks back on the job he has done as the Mets manager and sees consistent success.
After taking over for Art Howe in 2005, the Mets improved by 12 wins under Randolph. In three-plus seasons as their skipper, he has guided them to a .546 winning percentage, a division crown and within a game of a World Series birth.
For a man who spent years trying to earn a place as a Major League manager while an assistant for Joe Torre, it is easy to see how Randolph could see cries for his removal as an attack on his dream.
Also crucial to understanding Randolph's reaction is American history. Just over 40 years ago, the United States was racked by racial divide and conflict. Randolph grew up in the middle of that period.
In many ways, the racial contention of the 1960s was defined by an us-versus-them mentality. To many segregationist whites, desegregation was a zero-sum game. What African Americans gained, white people lost. Notorious segregationist, former Governor George Wallace of Alabama might best demonstrate this.
"The President (Kennedy) wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King," said Wallace in defense of segregation.
While still inexcusable, Wallace’s statement shows how he and others like him felt victimized by some of the changes the country was facing.
Wallace was not alone his beliefs, of course. But he did play a hand in shaping the debate on how blacks and whites should coexist. Both sides of the racial divide were guilty of using confrontational methods to get their point across. This included the Black Panthers frequently carrying loaded firearms.
Growing up in such a volatile atmosphere influenced the mindset of Americans across the country. As conflict rages, both sides dig in. By attempting to strengthen one’s position and establish unity within a group, that group naturally begins to vilify the opposing side.
Such practices were prevalent and inevitable during the racial strife of the 1960s. Remnants of this environment persist today.
One of the weaknesses of society is that it often fails to recognize how much power the culture it produces has over how people think. It ingrains in people certain values, a certain sense of normalcy, certain ways of processing information that stay with them throughout their lives.
Nobody is at fault for this. It is just how the world works. And it works this way for other things too – war, drugs, family values, even sports fandom.
Willie Randolph, like all of us, is a product of his environment. He grew up around racial conflict and in some way that struggle still stays with him today.
It is important to remember Randolph thought better of his statements and retracted them quickly. When he said that he no longer believes race in playing a part in the criticism being heaped on to him, I take him at his word.
I have to. Otherwise, I just perpetuate the problem.
I trust that after more careful introspection, Randolph was able to realize that there were other reasons why he was on the hot seat. At fault or not, he was still he manager of a fourth place team with the second highest payroll in baseball. Players were complaining. Fans were getting restless.
The short memory in evaluating coaches can be seen throughout the sports landscape. The Yankees ran Joe Torre out of town after 12 straight playoff appearances. Flip Saunders was sacked today after three straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals. Avery Johnson was fired despite holding the highest winning percentage in NBA coaching history. Impatience defines the coaching world right now. Unfortunately, Willie might be its next casualty.
Whether he is the manager for another week, month, year or decade, Randolph’s comments still provide an important reminder of where America has traveled from in its quest for a racial harmony. If we as a society refuse to reexamine our past regarding race, it will be tough to overcome the racial challenges we continue to face today.