Long road finally leads to Fall Classic for Collins
CHICAGO -- As Game 4 of the National League Championship Series wound down to its inevitable conclusion on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Mets manager Terry Collins began thinking about his late mother and father.
Collins' baseball career as a spunky middle infielder began at Class A in 1972 and never included a single game in the Major Leagues. He had managed 1,688 games for the Astros, Dodgers and Mets -- in addition to managing in the Minors and over in Japan -- and had never been to the playoffs, let alone the World Series.
Until this postseason. Collins knew it was either now or never. Boom or bust. He's 66 years old and these kind of chances perhaps come around only once in life. Certainly in his life.
These are the thoughts that were going through the mind of a baseball lifer with closer Jeurys Familia on the mound and Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler taking a called third strike to end the 8-3 victory and a sweep of the series. The World Series is next up starting on Tuesday night in either Toronto or Kansas City (on FOX).
"Yeah, baseball has been my life, my whole life," said Collins, his blue uniform top already soaked with champagne. "I was one of those guys who started playing when he was 4 or 5. And I told a story tonight to some people that this day would have been my mom and dad's wedding anniversary, had they been alive."
His mom, Choyce, passed in 1985 when Collins was managing what was then the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque. His father, Bud, died this past February at 95. Both were felled by heart attacks 30 years apart in Midland, Mich., the town where Collins grew up and played high school ball.
By his own recollection, Wednesday would have been his parents' 73rd anniversary.
Collins didn't get home in time to see his mother before she passed away. This spring, he left camp in Port Lucie, Fla., before pitchers and catchers reported to spend those precious final days with his dad.
He didn't make the same mistake twice.
"I remember, when I was 12 years old, I was such a baseball fan, I was begging my mom to stay home and watch the World Series between the Yankees and the Pirates," Collins recalled about that famous 1960 series. "I was in the fifth grade and she wrote me a note that I was sick that afternoon and couldn't go back to school. The World Series games were all in the daytime back then, so I could stay home and watch."
And then as the emotions began to overwhelm him in the dugout, all the years and miles began to peel away.
"I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wow, now you're in it after all these years.' It was worth the wait. It was worth all the work," he said. "So it's a special moment for me when this has been your whole life, to finally get to the ultimate series that every person who's ever played this game wants to get to."
Collins is listed as 5-foot-9, 158 pounds. He might be all of that when soaking wet, like Wednesday night. He's all heart and short of talent, and it took him years to realize that he can't rail at players who possess exactly the opposite components.
He managed 11 years in the Minor Leagues before finally getting his first big league opportunity in 1994 with Houston. That lasted three years and then he went to the Angels.
At the end of that three-year tenure, Collins became involved in a three-way power grab that involved team president Tony Tavares and general manager Bill Bavasi in the years after Disney bought the Angels from Gene Autry. Collins walked out and Bavasi followed shortly thereafter.
That was 1999, and Collins was aware of the risk.
"You don't walk away from these jobs. You're on your own," Collins said. "You can get fired and get other jobs. When you quit on your own, that's not a wise decision. But I knew one thing: that when the fun's gone you better go do something else. And at that particular time, what was going on with the Angels was no fun."
Collins worked in the Dodgers' organization as a Minor League field coordinator and had a profound impact on young players. That was a good time.
"Clayton Kershaw? That was fun. Matt Kemp? Fun. That was a fun job," Collins said.
But he didn't get another chance to manage in the bigs until Mets general manager Sandy Alderson went way outside the box and hired him in 2011. It was a curious hire, to say the least. Collins was combustible, irascible and prone to temper tantrums. He'd beat himself up for in-game moves that backfired and players thought he was angry at them. On the advice of his father, he changed. Collins said he knew he had to change.
Alderson says the temper and fiery disposition are still there, but publicly, Collins now keeps it all in check.
"When I got this job I said to myself, 'Have some fun with it,'" he said. "And I have. I don't take it that seriously."
The season has been stress filled, what with injuries, increased expectations, innings counts for all the young starters and the usual winning and losing streaks. Thus far, Collins and the team have maintained an equilibrium. Everything is jelling at once.
"I mean, I'm standing there in the dugout in the ninth inning and I'm looking around the field and looking down in the dugout, and I'm just looking at all the guys, thinking, 'How did they do it? How did they keep it together? How did they stay focused?'" Collins said.
"There were some tremendous peaks and some big, deep valleys, and to be able to keep those guys motivated and keep them levelheaded through the whole season takes a lot of work. And my coaching staff, the veterans did a tremendous job, and I just stood there and said, 'Wow, this might be the finest group of guys I've ever been around.'"
And then his mind turned to his late parents. This one's for Bud. This one's for Chocye. This one's for all the years of heartache. This was his final thought: "Let's go home and enjoy it."