Randolph became the manager for new general manager Omar Minaya, who'd been installed five weeks earlier. And here they stood on Thursday night at Shea Stadium, Randolph and Minaya, one triumph away from a trip to Detroit for the World Series.
"It's been a long journey, but I really feel like it's the right time," Randolph said. "This is where I deserve to be and should be. It's my hometown, and a special part of being here is being able to look up in the stands and see your family and friends and your old high school teachers and all that kind of stuff, which is kind of weird.
"But, to me, there's no redemption or anything like that. There's nothing; I don't have a feeling of 'I told you so,' or 'I knew this would happen.' It's just that I've been a part of a long legacy of winning, and I'm just happy the Met organization gave me the opportunity to come here and give it up to these players -- and we're on the cusp of a Game 7, National League Championship [Series].
"It feels real good."
Randolph, a superbly intuitive player for 17 Major League seasons, brought those keen instincts and feel for the game to the Mets, along with the ability to communicate and inspire.
His team bears his imprint: tough, smart, resilient. This, his players have said a thousand times in a thousand ways, is Randolph's team in every respect.
"Willie's got a cool confidence," third baseman David Wright said. "He doesn't have to give rah-rah speeches. He has that cool, calm swagger that he brings from when he was coaching the Yankees."
"Willie shows his confidence in you, and it really means a lot," said versatile outfielder Endy Chavez, who has raised his level of play significantly in Queens. "He doesn't try to make you be someone else. He lets you be yourself."
Randolph displayed that cool style Wright alluded to for 13 years as the Yanks' second baseman, playing for World Series champions in 1977 and '78. He wrapped up his career in 1992 with the Mets, starting the path that would bring him to back to Queens 12 years later as the skipper.
Among the managers Randolph played for was Cards skipper Tony La Russa in 1990 in Oakland. Those A's reached the World Series before getting swept by the Reds.
"I admired him," Randolph said of the Cardinals' esteemed leader. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tony La Russa. He's one of the best in the game. I don't get into trying to emulate styles of different managers. I just respect what they do."
La Russa said he didn't know why it took Randolph so long to land a managerial job, "but he's as well qualified as anybody I can remember in a long time, and it shouldn't have taken that long.
"I've watched Willie personally. I know his background in winning."
El Duque making strides: Looking confident on the right calf that he injured before the playoffs, Orlando Hernadez ran through fielding drills before Game 7 on the Shea Stadium mound.
Should the Mets make it to Detroit for the World Series, which opens Saturday night at Comerica Park, El Duque appears to be a viable candidate to start Game 1. He threw 72 pitches, freely and without pain, on Sunday in St. Louis, and after finishing his fielding work Thursday, he moved to the outfield to throw off flat ground -- freely, even joyously.
His body language suggested almost as strongly as his past performance charts that Hernandez is enthused about the prospect of his fifth World Series start coming very soon.
"There's always that possibility," Randolph said before Game 7, when asked if his starter on Saturday night could be someone not on his NLCS roster. "Dave Williams is down on the taxi squad working out, if we want to put him in our rotation.
"You never know. We have guys ready to go. Who knows, it could be El Duque, the way he's working, coming around, bouncing around pretty good. So it could be him."
Hernandez -- 9-7 with a 4.09 ERA for the Mets in 20 games after arriving from Arizona -- has pitched for four World Series champions, three times as a Yankee and last year with the White Sox. He's 2-1 with a 2.20 ERA in five Series appearances, four as a starter, with 36 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings. He's 9-3 overall in postseason play, with a 2.55 ERA in 106 innings.
Williams was 3-1 with a 5.59 ERA in six appearances with the Mets and 2-3 with a 7.20 ERA in eight games with the Reds.
DH has appeal to Floyd:
Cliff Floyd's strained left Achilles tendon has reduced him to a bench role since Game 1 of the NLCS, but he feels he's improved to the point where he could serve as the Mets' designated hitter in Detroit.
"I think I could do that if there's a spot there," Floyd said. "I feel I can swing the bat, help out. It's up to them to decide."
Providing protection for Wright in the No. 6 hole, Floyd batted .444 in the NLDS against the Dodgers before straining the tendon running the bases in Game 3.
Floyd tried to play in Game 1 against the Cards, but had to come out after two innings when he aggravated the leg running the bases. He's 0-for-2, grounding out in a Game 5 pinch-hitting appearance.
Acta interview set:
Mets third-base coach Manny Acta has an interview for the vacant Rangers managerial position scheduled for Friday. Acta also is under consideration for the Giants' job.
Back on the mound:
The last time the Mets played a Game 7 at Shea Stadium, they started Ron Darling and made New England weep in 1986. Darling, looking fit enough to lobby for that Game 1 spot in Detroit, was the choice to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Thursday night.