NEW YORK - Willie Randolph hung up the phone and gave his wife a big hug. After falling short nearly a dozen times, he finally was a major league manager.
"I think my wife had to pull me off the ceiling, I was so excited," he said Thursday at Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets introduced the Brooklyn native as their 18th manager. "It's a lot of emotion running through your body, the fact that you finally get your opportunity, you're doing it in your hometown, for the team you rooted for as a kid."
He called his parents in South Carolina after new Mets general manager Omar Minaya hired him Wednesday night and took congratulatory calls from Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson. Paul O'Neill and Don Mattingly telephoned, too.
"They all love me - now," Randolph said softly as he looked out at all the cameras and reporters.
Taking over a team coming off its third straight losing season, Randolph was given a three-year contract worth about $1.8 million and the chance to earn additional annual bonuses depending on how the Mets finish. After 11 seasons as a coach with the New York Yankees, he has an idea about the importance of success and the intolerance of failure.
"New Yorkers walk with a swagger. They're tough-minded. I think their team should represent that," Randolph said. "I'm a New Yorker. I'm tough.... No job is really easy, but I think in New York the expectations are higher."
Art Howe, fired midway through a four-year contract, not only failed to win, he was boring. Randolph, chosen over Texas hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and former Houston and Anaheim manager Terry Collins, gives the Mets some pizzaz.
A six-time All-Star second baseman, he becomes the first black major league manager in New York. He cited Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell as inspirations.
"I've always been a historian of black history. If you walk into my office, I have tons of books and memorabilia that I cherish," he said. "If it wasn't for those warriors, forefathers, guys who really played the game with passion and love for the game, I wouldn't be here, so I just want to really just kind of glorify them by going out and doing a good job."
Minaya hadn't talked with Randolph much until interviewing him last month. He was impressed by Randolph's passion and consistency.
"We've seen Willie grow up as a player, develop as a coach. For all of us that have been raised here in New York, he's part of the family," Minaya said. "I didn't even think about Willie being a minority. I felt Willie Randolph was a good baseball man. I don't think in those terms."
Minaya, a Dominican who grew up near Shea Stadium in Queens, felt a kinship. He had been turned down for many GM jobs before commissioner Bud Selig hired him as general manager of the Montreal Expos in 2002.
"I was just like Willie. I went though a whole bunch of interviews, too, myself," Minaya said. "And I was denied, so I wasn't surprised he was not given an opportunity, because I had been through that role myself."
The 50-year-old Randolph becomes the third Brooklyn native to manage a major league team, joining his former Yankees boss, Joe Torre, and colleague, Lee Mazzilli. Randolph was a Mets fan growing up, went to Shea Stadium as a kid and said he "danced in the streets" when the Miracle Mets won the 1969 World Series.
Randolph thought back to May 23, 1970, when he was 15 and took his future wife, Gretchen, to Shea, a time when box seats cost $4.
"I remember vividly my first legitimate date," he said. "I would say legitimate because I saved my allowance to take my wife to our first game. We sat right behind home plate, off to the third-base dugout."
He won two World Series rings as a player with the Yankees and four more as a coach. On Thursday, he wore the one from the 2000 Subway Series win against the Mets because it means the most to him. The Mets finished 71-91 in 2004, fourth in the NL East, and Randolph has been brought in to trigger a transformation.
"It's your attitude, whether it's discipline or whether it's just the way you practice," he said. "After a while, if you don't change that, it becomes a defeatist situation. I've been about winning. I've always been around winning. And I hope to bring a little of that winning in. I'm no genius and I'm not going to come here and start making predictions. But I know how to win."
His role models are Torre ("the best manager in baseball"), Billy Martin ("the ultimate leader, warrior"), Dick Howser, Lou Piniella ("even though he was nuts"), Tony La Russa and Tom Lasorda. Randolph wants an aggressive team that will steal bases and force defenses to make plays. He's spoken to Don Zimmer about the possibility of joining his coaching staff, and Chili Davis, too.
Yankee Stadium had congratulatory signs posted outside, and owner George Steinbrenner praised Randolph as "a great Yankee."
"He will be missed but he's truly earned this position," he said.
Minaya said Randolph has to prepare for the tough times that are likely to come before success.
"Managing in New York is not only about baseball. Managing in New York is about understanding the New York fan base, understanding the media, understanding the beat of the city," Minaya said. "New Yorkers don't take things personally. I think Willie's going to have to understand that. Us New Yorkers, I think, understand that. If somebody criticizes you, don't take it personally."
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