The New York Mets, having recently worked their way out of one self-created distraction, now have another.
Manager Willie Randolph on Tuesday backed away from comments he made in a Monday column in The Bergen (N.J.) Record in which he questioned whether race has played a role in media coverage of him. He also, in the column, was critical of the way he has been portrayed during broadcasts on the Mets' cable television network.
The Mets, who came into the season with high expectations and hopes of erasing the sting of last fall's epic collapse, have come under fire for their uneven play this season. Randolph, the first black major league manager in New York, wondered aloud in the column whether race had anything to do with his being held to a different standard.
"Is it racial?" Randolph asked in the column, written by The Record's Ian O'Connor. "Huh? It smells a little bit."
"I don't know how to put my finger on it, but I think there's something there," Randolph said in the column. He cited the example of former New York Jets coach Herman Edwards as a coach who was initially successful, but did not last long when the Jets started losing. He also noted the treatment of former New York Knicks coach and GM Isiah Thomas, saying "Isiah didn't do a great job, but they beat up Isiah pretty good. ... There's something weird about it."
On Tuesday, Randolph attempted to clarify those remarks.
"It's been a lot of negative stuff going on around here and I've been feeling some of that and I was just expressing how I felt at the time, but it wasn't anything to do with race," he told reporters. "I wasn't trying to bring race into it. I probably should have thought more about what I was going to say."
"I don't think it's about race," he added. "It's about winning ballgames and getting back to the way we are capable of playing."
Randolph also said any discussions of race or dissension in the Mets locker room would disappear if the team started winning consistently. Late last week, after a demoralizing 1-0 home loss to the last-place Washington Nationals, closer Billy Wagner pointedly questioned why some members of the team were not around to answer to reporters after the game. A lengthy closed-door team meeting followed the next day. But then the Mets won a pair from the New York Yankees in interleague play, pushing questions about team unity to the back burner.
Before the Mets played the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday, Randolph apologized saying, "I just wrote down some notes I want to share with you guys."
"First of all, I want to apologize to the Mets ownership, SNY and my team for the unnecessary distraction that I created, that I caused the last couple days," he said. "I shouldn't have said what I said. It was a mistake. As simple as that. It was a mistake.
"And there is no excuse for that. No excuses. I own up to it. The fact of life is that we haven't been playing very well as a team. We've been very inconsistent. We've talked about that before. When it happens, you're going to get criticized for that. I understand that."
Randolph said he wasn't asked by Mets management to issue the apology.
"It's been a tough couple months for my team, for myself," he said. "I understand that goes along with that. I've known that for a long time."
Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who spent 12 years with the Yankees, said the pressure of performing in New York could be partly to blame for the comments.
"It's a very tough market. That's all I can say," Torre said. "He's under a great amount of pressure -- as [Joe] Girardi is and as I was. Sometimes you may not be as well-rested as other days and you get a little cranky."
Asked whether there might be any truth to what Randolph said, Torre replied: "I'm not even going to go there. Willie certainly has a set of circumstances that he's had to deal with that a lot of other managers didn't have to deal with."
Reds manager Dusty Baker said Randolph may have simply been speaking his mind.
"Is that possibly far-fetched, what he said there? Is there a possibility?" Baker said. "But I've got to hear what Willie said, though. I mean, I've said some stuff, too. Sometimes it could be some stuff you've been feeling for a long time, you know what I mean? I didn't apologize, either, but everybody had to answer for what I said. That's the part that's not fair."
Mets infielder Damion Easley said Randolph's comments had not caused a stir in the clubhouse.
"I didn't feel like it was a distraction," Easley said. "I only know bits and pieces. It doesn't change the fact that we've got to play better baseball and the sooner the better. So as far as creating a distraction, I didn't feel like that was a distraction."
In his comments to the Record, Randolph also questioned the way SportsNet New York covers him during games, suggesting that shots of him in the dugout reinforce an inaccurate perception that he lacks competitive fire during games.
"They're the artists, I'm the canvas. They paint the picture the way they want to," he said of the coverage.
Randolph explained that SNY's cameras focus in on him when things go wrong for the Mets -- and that those moments are the wrong time to show anger.
On Tuesday, Randolph backed off that criticism, too.
"I'm not necessarily upset with anyone," Randolph said. "There is so much perception out there about me and sometimes when you hear it or see, you shake your head a little bit because that's kind of not like me."
When asked if his opinion of the way he has been portrayed by SNY has changed on Wednesday, Randolph said "Yes. Yes. Again, those guys have a job to do. They get paid a lot of money to do their job. What I feel about that is really not important. At the time I voiced that opinion, again, that was out of frustration.
"What I said was what it felt like to me. I feel bad about how this has come about."
During SNY's coverage of Tuesday's doubleheader against the Braves, the network's on-air personalities responded to Randolph's criticism.
"Why is Willie wasting any time watching us, for one, and two, I just think it's wrong," said Ron Darling. "I think his comments are wrong.
"I think some of the best things we do are watching not only Willie, but also his staff, go about their business educating these young men on how to play the game."
Fellow SNY analyst Keith Hernandez said he was surprised by the comments.
"In my 17 years of major league baseball and 10-plus years of being up here in the booth, I've just never heard of a manager make those kinds of comments before, and I'm really quite surprised that Willie made those comments," he said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.