Harrelson, Randolph forever linked

Harrelson, Randolph forever linked

NEW YORK -- From a perspective few men have shared, Buddy Harrelson sensed misery. Circumstances suggested it, and the television monitor in his Long Island home confirmed it. Willie Randolph was suffering. He was persevering, keeping his upper lip rigid, saying all the right things and even trying to make light of the pending doom. But most of all, he was suffering. Harrelson could tell.

He recalled his own experiences, when his tenure as manager of the Mets reached the coordinates nastiness and uncertainty. He was sure Randolph was there, too; no matter that he had made the flight to Anaheim on Sunday, no matter that he had managed -- and won -- on Monday night. Harrelson recognized misery. So when he learned that the Mets had dismissed Randolph during the Monday overnight, he considered it an act of euthanasia.

He said: "I'm glad they fired him.

"I have sympathy and empathy for him. He's too good a man, too nice a man to go through what he was going through."

No congratulatory phone call would be placed from one former Mets manager to the other. Not now, perhaps never. What Harrelson has to say to Randolph might sound out of place right now, or even mean-spirited. And that hardly is the intent of the man who was dismissed by the Mets 17 years ago. But as Harrelson considered what the Mets had done in the Southern California dark and all that Randolph already had endured. And the only reaction that seemed to make sense was, "Good for you, Willie."

Long before the news reached him Tuesday morning, Harrelson had come to consider Randolph a sibling of sorts -- twin sons of different mothers. Their playing careers had overlapped six seasons, 1975-80, but their overall careers have run parallel. Consider: Each was a sure-handed middle infielder for New York championship teams -- Harrelson the shortstop with the Miracle-making Mets of 1969 and the "Ya Gotta Believe" guys of '73, and Randolph the deft second baseman with the Yankees champions teams of 1976-78, '80 and '81. Harrelson was the de facto captain of the Mets, Randolph a co-captain in the Bronx. Each coached third base for championship teams. Harrelson escorted Ray Knight from third base to the plate in the Buckner Game in 1986. Randolph was a signal relayer through much of Joe Torre's run with the Yankees. Harrelson was Torre's teammate with the Mets.

Each man made a home in the New York -- Harrelson eschewing Northern California to grow roots on the Island; Randolph, the Brooklyn kid, setting up housekeeping in Northern New Jersey.

"And now we've both been dumped. ... Definitely, there are parallels," Harrelson said.

Differences exist as well, and, on this day when the Randolph tenure with the Mets was ended, the greatest difference as cited by Harrelson was, "I never solicited for the job."

Randolph had. He had burned to manage. He had interviewed 10 times before the Mets chose him. He still was burning, when general manager Omar Minaya changed the remainder of the money owed him by the Wilpon family, some $3.5 million, from salary to golden parachute.

"I'm glad he gets more, I'm glad they have to pay him," Harrelson said.

One parallel Harrelson didn't want for a man that he considers as a friend was a season of misery. And he suspected Randolph was 2 1/2 months into one.

"It's not healthy for him," Harrelson said on Tuesday morning by telephone. "The job's not worth it when you come down to it. There comes a point when you're not happy, can't be happy. I didn't like the job. At some point in my second year, I wasn't sane."

Harrelson saw it all coming for Randolph, he said.

"I kind of felt that last year after they didn't win," Harrelson said. "The beginning of this year, his decisions were questioned more. Come to the park, talk to the media about yesterday. They were out to get him. I had that in my second year, [1991] -- questions about yesterday's game. Yesterday's game. My personality is, 'Yesterday's over.' You can't fix it. Move on.

"I'm not a quitter. I got fired, and it hurt. I lost my love for the game. My second year was the worst year of my life. Miserable. I was drinking more."

He recalled a conversation he had with Lou Piniella -- May 29, 1990, the day he replaced Davey Johnson, a manager he thought never should have been fired.

"I was at the plate with Lou before the game for the lineup cards," Harrelson said. "We start back to the dugouts and he calls me over. 'You know the secret to managing?' he said.

"I figured he was going to share something real insightful. He said, 'Vodka.'

"'I don't drink vodka,' I told him. ... I started. ... Managing changes you. It can change your life."

Harrelson changed. He always had been everybody's Buddy. By the middle of 1991, he was just Bud. Players who had considered him their favorite uncle two years earlier, questioned his authority, even his baseball acumen. It was a sad time. His image, almost pristine as a player, became stained. Alex Webster of the football Giants and Willis Reed of the Knicks had endured similar metamorphoses when they became head coaches, instead of the appreciation that followed them as players. There was ridicule. They no longer were heroes.

Harrelson had tried to incorporate elements of Gil Hodges. That wasn't him; it didn't work. After a game in St. Louis in 1991, he snapped at a reporter he liked. The following day another reporter took him to lunch and, while crossing a street, asked, "What's happened to you? No manager ever has snapped at Danny." That bothered him. He went back to being Buddy for 10 days.

"I wasn't happy. I was changing," Harrelson said. "Then I got fired on top of it. Even though I hated the job, I didn't like to be fired. But after a while, I healed and I recognized I was better off. Willie will feel that after a while. Maybe not right away. Right now, he just hurts."

Not all the pain is eliminated by time. Harrelson still is unsettled by what he -- and his children -- experienced the day after he was exiled, Sept. 28, 1991. The school-bus stop was at the corner of his property. Freed from baseball, he escorted his kids to the stop in the morning.

"They were young then," he recalled Tuesday. "The bus comes, and as they get on, the kids on the bus start to boo.

"They're booing a father because the Mets didn't win enough. I never should have let them get on the bus. Never should have let them go to school.

"I didn't deserve that. My kids never should have heard that. I deserved to be fired. But I didn't deserve that. ... Willie's kids are older. That's good."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.