Rookie mistake illuminates larger issue
Managers may be leaders, but players in command
Managers have the authority; players have the real power, though. Keep that in mind. It is one of the unspoken truths of the game these days. Authority is one thing; power is the thing. The difference is more than semantics. Managers lead, but in many instances, players hold the reins.
Those thoughts came to mind Wednesday night at Citi Field when Fernando Martinez jogged to his position in right field for the seventh inning. The Mets rookie hadn't used any sort of accelerated gait since leaving his position after the top of the sixth. And therein lies the first issue. Martinez hadn't run after hitting a popup that went uncaught in the bottom of the sixth. Instead, he had watched his pop ascend and descend in fair territory and was almost 90 feet from first base when the ball bounced off the chest protector of Nationals catcher Wil Nieves and to the Citi turf. He was thrown out by pitcher Ron Villone.
At that point, Martinez should have run in a different direction, toward the Mets dugout to hide, offering a mea culpa with each step.
As we watched from the press box and after the sense of the unfathomable had diminished, we wondered whether this misdemeanor would cost Martinez the final three innings of his second big league game, whether Jerry Manuel's seemingly inexhaustible reserve of patience finally would be drained and the plug would be pulled on a 20-year-old after 15 innings in the big leagues.
Didn't happen. Manuel left it to the Citi fans to remind the rookie that effort is expected -- no, required.
A day later, it remains difficult to say who is more deserving of admonishment, the rookie or the enabler? Martinez was wrong. He admitted that and promised never to be a repeat offender. That he was standup, whether or not he was coached on what to say, is an encouraging sign. Good for him. I thought Manuel was wrong as well. He later acknowledged the Mets' primary position-player prospect had made "a huge mistake," but he and Martinez indicated there had been no lecture or scolding. Manuel had opted not to use the means available to every manager to maintain law and order -- the lineup card.
If I were the manager, my measured response would have been to remove Martinez from the game, remind him that hustle will enhance the skills he has, drop the subject and start him in right field Friday night. Simple, nothing harsh or extraordinary, to the point and readily understood.
Even with the Mets as shorthanded as they are, Manuel could have inserted Jeremy Reed in right field to emphasize a point to Martinez and others on the 25-man roster and disabled list who have come to see running out popups, ground balls and fly balls or sliding as optional. Running and sliding seemingly have become non-compulsory at Citi.
Martinez brought the game to a standstill as Jose Reyes had the two weeks earlier when he unwisely tried to cross from second base to third on a ground ball to shortstop. Carlos Beltran has had two no-slide moments this season. And which player hasn't downshifted after covering the first 85 feet between the plate and first base on a ground ball?
Manuel defended Martinez in one regard, saying "... I don't see that as part of his behavior." And he appears to be right. But what happened Wednesday night is a first entry in his big league rap sheet whether or not it's part of a pattern. And coming as it did, at a time when the Mets' on-field attentiveness has been rightfully subjected to criticism, made the rookie's mistake more egregious.
Not running/sliding/thinking unquestionably are elements of the Mets' behavior -- this season and in other recent seasons. When Lastings Milledge was late to the ballpark for the first time, he didn't have a rap sheet either. When Timo Perez downshifted in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, he hadn't shown a pattern of foolish behavior. But his mistake still resonates with those who choose to believe a Mets victory that night would redirect the Series.
Perhaps Manuel already has addressed the situation with Martinez, and done so privately. Nothing wrong with that. We don't need to know everything, though a public word or two might reinforce the notion of running hard to others. Or maybe the only direct message sent was the booing prompted by Martinez's at-bat in the seventh inning Wednesday.
To some degree, the absence of discipline or scolding is understandable. It was a former general manager who noted the evolution that has happened in the game in the last 30 years; that managers do lead and have a title and an office. But the players hold the reins.
They always have had the wherewithal to undermine managers but seemingly have used it more readily since free agency and greater wealth afforded them a sense of independence.
Charlie Manuel did bench Jimmy Rollins last year when the 2006 MVP disobeyed orders, and the results were what he wanted. So exceptions do exist.
I recall an impromptu discussion among a half-dozen Mets veterans during batting practice before a 1997 Spring Training game at Dodgertown. Bobby Valentine was in his first spring as Mets manager, and players were discussing getting him fired. They sensed his expertise as a teacher and in-game strategist might direct them to the postseason and decided to try to tolerate his personality. But they knew they had a say in his destiny.
Last season, Willie Randolph was quite vexed by the inability of Carlos Delgado to pursue a foul popup in San Francisco, a ball catcher Brian Schneider caught by the dugout railing while Delgado remained in fair territory. But Randolph was reluctant to admonish his first baseman because he sensed the players who held Delgado in high regard would be offended. "How many players do I lose if I get on him?" Randolph wondered.
Maybe the follow-up question is how many games do you lose if you don't.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.