Mets made Randolph a 'better man'

Mets made Randolph a 'better man'

NEW YORK -- The game occasionally holds his attention these days. But it can't compete with Savannah Rose. Willie Randolph still embraces baseball, still longs for more of it. For the moment, though, he is quite content to wrap his arms around the little girl who has changed his identity from former or future manager to grandpa. For now, the gravitational pull of family offsets the lure of the game.

So this week, Willie Randolph is Larry again. He's down in the South Carolina town where he was born, Holly Hill, the little place that sounds so comfortable and seems to go hand in hand with his granddaughter's name. He's there to visit his folks -- they know him as Larry -- have some laughs, share some stories and eat some barbecue.

And next week, he'll be home, directing his smile at little Savannah Rose. "She changes your perspective," Grandpa says. And all she asks in return is to be changed. She knows nothing of magic numbers or dysfunctional bullpens; the phrase "17 games to go" is lost on her. At this point, she can't even identify the glowing face connected to the warm arms and sure hands that regularly hold her, "But she knows who loves her," Larry Randolph says.

Joyous words flow from him now. He's talking about the kisses and hugs he gives and the fun of it all. "I love the way she smells," he says, as he's driving from North Jersey to his roots. He calls her "an unbelievable little creature." A smile comes through the telephone. Savannah Rose has not yet taken her first steps -- she was born in August. Her presence has allowed her grandfather to take steps away from "that funk I was in."

It is a kinder, gentler time for the man who hasn't released all the "might have been" thoughts just yet. He enjoys the freedom while he anticipates a return to the game "someday, somewhere." He is comfortable at the coordinates of betwixt and between.

The Mets' shortfall hardly went unnoticed by him. "I saw the look in David's eyes. I felt Aaron's pain and a few others'," Randolph says. He mentions no Mets other than David Wright and Aaron Heilman by name. "I remember the feeling. ... I can't compare it [to what he endured in 2007]."

He recalls: "I cried like a baby when I talked to my guys after the last game last year. ... When I took the job, I wanted to bring a championship back to Shea. I wanted that parade for the Mets." And he can't help but wonder what Johan Santana would have meant to the 2007 rotation. "We missed by one game," he says. "One game.

"I promised those guys we'd get back there. I was always with winners. I wanted us to be winners in the worst way. I wanted my guys to feel the reward of rebounding from that devastating thing we went through. I'd teach them, and we'd get back to where we were in 2006. But I wasn't able to finish."

Randolph's voice drops, but it bounces back in a New York minute.

Since the moment he was dismissed by the Mets in Anaheim in the early hours of June 17, he has learned about recovery. Returning to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers Day and receiving a warm, loud reception that night buoyed him. Perhaps Savannah Rose will see a video of it someday.

Randolph was back again, as No. 30, the night the Stadium was given last rites; more emotions in a summer filled with them. "I didn't expect to feel anything," he says. "I thought it would just be, 'See ya later.' But I was melancholy. The fans showed me some love. That felt so good. An hour and half after it was over, I was still there. Chambliss' home run and Reggie's three and Boone's homer. Jeez."

As he drives, Randolph relives the piece of spontaneity that brought a smile to the Stadium's face on that night of ambivalence. "When they were introducing us," he says. "I was standing next to David Cone and David Wells. I told 'em, 'I'm going to slide into second base.' They said, 'No, you're not.' I said, 'Why not?' Then it got to be like they were daring me. You know, I used to be proud when my uniform got dirty. I was a relatively dirty player -- you know what I mean.

"So when I got out there and I felt that adrenaline rush, I just did it."

Small, choppy steps preceded his slide. "I was so afraid I'd blow out my hamstring," he says, laughing at his own hesitancy. "I said, 'Please, God, don't let me pull it again.'"

He recalls a quick move from the dugout steps to the field early in the 2007 season. He wanted to dispute an umpire's call. "I popped out, and I felt my hammy go. 'Oh no.' I covered it up pretty good though," he says. "There was just a subtle limp. I think some of my guys could tell. But I covered up pretty good. But I didn't want to be limping off at Yankee Stadium."

When the ceremonies were complete, Randolph stuffed the stained uniform pants into a bag and brought them home. Since then, he has transferred them into a transparent plexiglass casing. "Some guys picked up dirt from the mound or home plate," he says. "I'll have mine on a Yankee uniform, crisply folded and in that case in my memorabilia room."

He has a Mets uniform as well.

It has been a summer of souvenirs for Randolph -- some good, others not good, some that can be encased and displayed, others that he will allow to fade from immediate recall. He isn't limping physically or emotionally these days.

Golf awaits him if no club seeks his services. The Mets are obligated to pay him through next season, so he could provide complementary babysitting services if he chooses. At least one newspaper has said a move to the third-base coach's box at the new Yankee Stadium is possible. He says nothing has been said to him.

He knows where vacancies exist and hopes the game doesn't forget his face, his name or his resume. But it's October, and Holly Hill has him for now. Savannah Rose has a few dozen tentative appointments when he returns.

So he'll catch a few innings of the game's Final Four here and there. His ties to Joe Torre are strong. A Dodgers appearance in the World Series wouldn't disappoint Randolph. He can empathize with his former colleague, Lou Piniella, after the Cubs' hasty postseason exit. Randolph's '06 Mets were favored too.

The 2008 fate of neither the Cubs nor the Yankees surprised him. He can draw parallels between Torre's World Series champion teams and the current Red Sox and marvel at all the young talent the Rays have. Even now, he marvels at the succession of postseason appearances the Yankees made. Randolph had hopes his Mets could take steps in that direction.

Disappointment developed instead. But now the disappointment has faded and some scars have healed. His family is a salve.

Randolph hardly is ignoring the game that is his livelihood. He may be back in it before the 2009 season begins. On this day, though, as he drives down I-95, he's living in the happy ever after. "All that's happened," he says, "the good and the bad, has made me a better man."

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