Collins excited for the challenge ahead

Collins excited for the challenge ahead

Collins excited for the challenge ahead
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A challenge walked into Mets camp earlier this week, wearing black shorts and designer sunglasses. Oliver Perez spoke about wanting to start games.

Two more challenges arrived Tuesday afternoon, when Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez landed in town. For different reasons, managing those two may prove difficult.

There is also Jose Reyes. There is Jason Bay and Luis Castillo and Carlos Beltran, and not a sure thing among them. Second base -- who knows? The bullpen? Take your best guess. The puzzle pieces are scattered. The answers are foggy. The specter (and distraction) of Bernie Madoff looms. And even if Terry Collins manages to fit every piece together -- even if he manages to exceed every last expectation -- there is still the matter of that juggernaut down in Philadelphia.

Such are the challenges for the new manager.

"I've lived my whole life with expectations," Collins said Wednesday. "I expect a lot out of myself. I expect a lot out of my teams, and we're going to work towards that. We're going to talk about that on a daily basis. We're going to try to rebuild some confidence here. We want to rebuild some swagger."

Consider Digital Domain Park a construction site, then, full of potential but not much confidence. At least not yet. Generating it is the charge of Collins, a man who hasn't led a Major League team in a dozen years -- but who, as is his nature, feels he can build something here.

"I like our team," Collins said. "I like our team a lot. Now I've got to teach them to believe in it."

First, of course, Collins must teach the Mets to believe in him. Much has been said and written about Collins, 61, when he was named Mets manager over the overwhelming fan favorite, Wally Backman, and two sharp minds in Chip Hale and Bob Melvin. His detractors drew on sour endings in Houston and Anaheim, which were his first two (and only two) managing gigs, back in the 1990s. In both cases, Collins lost control of the clubhouse at the end, most famously becoming the subject of a player petition during his final days in Southern California. Since then, he has spent time as a coach, a field coordinator and a manager in Japan. He has learned plenty.

Now it's time to apply it.

Shortly before Christmas, Collins visited New York and discussed his plans to be down in Port St. Lucie for most of January, long before even the most eager Minor Leaguers reported to camp. And there he was earlier this week, more than a month into the job, bouncing from field to field in a long-sleeve T-shirt and nylon pants, clutching a fungo bat and chirping about his experiences in Japan.

He gushed about Jenrry Mejia. He raved about Bobby Parnell. He seemed stocked with energy -- that's why the Mets hired him, after all -- and began saying all the right things to inspire confidence in his team.

"My whole focus has been on getting the team ready," Collins said, "and that's all I've been trying to do."

For Collins, an unhappy ending in Flushing could spell the end of his managerial career, and he understands the legitimacy of that risk. In his third stint as a Major League manager, Collins has inherited a team that most project to do no better than third place in the National League East, a team with more questions than answers on its 40-man roster. He has a two-year contract, but -- as previous manager Jerry Manuel can attest -- that often means little in a market as unforgiving as New York.

So Collins must grab hold and make the most of this. He must rally all the energy that he can and hope that Beltran, David Wright and Mike Pelfrey can feed off it, project it and expand it. The Mets hired Collins in the hope that he might help them turn a critical corner.

Now's the time to start.

Unlike Manuel, who never was one for rah-rah speeches, Collins plans to address his entire team once the players all report this weekend. It's a speech he claims he's been planning since the day he was hired.

"I'm hoping to say the right things," Collins said. "I've pretty much hit everybody individually about some ideas, some thoughts, and I'm going to bring it all together in one big -- hopefully not too extended -- speech. I've always believed that Feb. 21 is probably the biggest day of the season for me."

If he has his way, though, that last bit cannot be true. If Collins finally succeeds in his third stop as a big league manager, the Mets will be playing important games deeper into summer than anyone expects.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.