"When he was our Minor League field coordinator," third baseman David Wright says, "he had that same fire for Feb. 1 as he does now, at the halfway point managing the big league team. That's valuable when you have a guy who has that energy, regardless of the circumstance. You saw it early on. By no means did he have to bring that energy and electricity when he's throwing batting practice and it's 100 degrees outside and it's Feb. 1 and he's the Minor League coordinator."
We talk sometimes about teams taking on the personality of their manager, and if that truly is the case in Queens, that can only be a good thing for the Mets. Sometimes effort and energy can bridge even the most glaring gap in talent -- something the 2012 Mets present on paper.
But it's mid-July, and Collins' Mets are on the right side of .500 in the difficult National League East. They are not a powerhouse, by any stretch of the imagination, and thus far they're 0-fer after the All-Star break, having just dropped three straight in Atlanta. But because of their pitching, they could very well be good enough to hang around in the division and Wild Card hunts, and that's a reality few would have anticipated for a club that said sayonara to some significant star talent in Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran.
Going into the season, Collins knew those absences would have impact, undoubtedly. But how could the little guy with the big appetite not focus on the more positive points?
"You had to be realistic enough to know what you lost," he says. "But by the same token, you've got to know what you've got. I sat there this winter and wrote out my lineup and said, 'There's nothing wrong with my team.' Yeah, Jose Reyes isn't there anymore, Beltran's not there anymore. But gosh, I've got Ike Davis for a whole year. I've got a young player by the name of Lucas Duda who's got a chance to hit 40 homers. I've got David Wright, and, if Johan Santana's back, our pitching's better. We went into Spring Training saying we know what we're missing, but we've got some pieces here that can work, and so far they have."
Not all the pieces align properly, and so there are some pesky injuries and also some prominent ones, like the loss of right-hander Dillon Gee. There are nights when the bullpen implodes or the lineup can't hit a lick. And so there are times when Collins, in spite of himself, isn't having all that much fun. This past weekend would be a good example.
But in a year in which Santana tossed the organization's first no-hitter and Dickey twice threatened to repeat the feat, a year in which his Mets have achieved midyear relevance, a year in which he got to soak in the All-Star experience as Tony La Russa's hired hand, Collins is, on the whole, keeping that promise he made to himself.
"At my age," he says, "I just say, 'Look, I've loved the game for so long. I'm going to enjoy it as I start to wind down.'"
Enjoying means not obsessing over it. It means letting the players have their say sometimes and not always imposing your will. And it means not letting your competitive spirit -- we're talking about a guy who openly admits, "I want to beat my wife in golf" -- swallow up your soul and sensibilities.
"Maturity," he says. "The fire still burns, and I'm still competitive as hell, but I realize now that you can't worry about it until it's over. Ultimately, if you're getting better, you're going to win games. That's all we worry about."
All we can say for certain right now is that the Mets have won more than they've lost, and they've put themselves in position to play second-half games of significance. Where it goes from here is anybody's guess. But they're benefiting from the personality infused upon them by a 63-year-old who was an unconventional hire with an unwavering belief that this time he'd do things right.
"I'm still in this game because of these players," Collins says. "They keep me young. Their energy brings you energy, and that's why I'm still doing it at my age. Otherwise, I'd be home mowing the grass."