ANAHEIM, Calif. After weeks of speculation that his job was in jeopardy, Willie Randolph finally got fired by the New York Mets while most fans were sleeping.
Randolph became the first manager in the majors to get fired this season, a move the Mets announced in a matter-of-fact news release around 12:15 a.m. PDT Tuesday, nearly two hours after they beat the Los Angeles Angels 9-6.
At 34-35, the Mets seemed wobbly after their colossal collapse last September.
"I'm really stunned by it," Randolph said as he left the team hotel shortly before noon. "I was surprised by it."
Bench coach Jerry Manuel takes over on an interim basis. Pitching coach Rick Peterson and first base coach Tom Nieto also were fired in an enormous overhaul.
Randolph led the Mets to within one win of the 2006 World Series. They got off to a strong start again last year but plummeted down the stretch and were unable to rebound.
A preseason favorite to win the NL pennant, the $138 million Mets had won two in a row when Randolph was dismissed. He was set to earn $2 million this season and is owed $2.25 million in 2009, when the Mets move into new Citi Field.
Randolph said he was sorry he wasn't to "fulfill my what my dream is, to come here and help this team win a world championship."
Peterson said Mets management "welcomed me into their home and homes go through renovations.
"I'm the hardwood floor that's getting ripped out and they're going to replace it with Tuscany tile," he said.
"This is a team that's underachieved and it will get back on track," he said. "I walk out in peace."
Ken Oberkfell, the club's manager at Triple-A New Orleans, and Dan Warthen, pitching coach for the Zephyrs, will join the major league staff along with Luis Aguayo, a Mets field coordinator.
A message left for general manager Omar Minaya was not immediately returned. The Mets said Minaya and Manuel would be available to reporters at Angel Stadium at 2 p.m. PDT on Tuesday.
Reached by phone nearly three hours after Monday night's game, Mets utility man Marlon Anderson said he didn't know that Randolph had been fired and he didn't want to comment until he heard the news from a member of the team.
"Not tonight," Anderson said.
It was a frustrating end for the 53-year-old Randolph, who was set to be an NL coach at the All-Star game at Yankee Stadium next month.
Yankees co-chairman Hal Steinbrenner, at a promotional event Tuesday for the All-Star festivities, was asked whether the team might rehire Randolph even in an honorary capacity to let him take part.
"Willie's been a Yankee for a lot of years. He's a smart man. We need to let all the dust settle and see what happens, and we'll go from there," Steinbrenner said.
"Anything's a possibility," he said.
The 54-year-old Manuel takes over a squad that still has playoff aspirations. He's had success before, too.
Quiet and confident, Manuel managed the Chicago White Sox from 1998-2003, winning AL Manager of the Year in 2000 after guiding his club to the league's best record (95-67).
He steps in for Randolph, known for his exceptionally steady play as a six-time All-Star second baseman and even-keel demeanor as a longtime coach with the Yankees.
Yet Randolph's time in charge of the Mets was marked by highs and lows from the get-go.
Hired by Minaya to replace Art Howe for the 2005 season, Randolph lost his first five games as a major league manager, then won the next six.
He nearly guided the Mets into the 2006 World Series, losing Game 7 of the NLCS to St. Louis on Yadier Molina's tiebreaking home run in the ninth inning.
The Mets and their fans were convinced 2007 would be their year. Poised for a big run, what followed was one of the biggest collapses in baseball history: Leading the NL East by seven games on Sept. 12, they lost 12 of their last 17 and missed the playoffs as Philadelphia rallied to win the division title.
Several times, Randolph tried to separate last season's failure and this season's struggle.
"I really felt we put last year behind us," he said last month. "No one ever talks about it, no one ever brings it up, so if we are looking a little like we were last year, there's no correlation."
Many Mets watchers, however, felt there was a carry-over effect. Injuries to Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou and Ryan Church, another down year by Carlos Delgado and a sudden slump by closer Billy Wagner didn't help.
With each stretch of inconsistent play, chants of "Fire Willie!" grew louder at Shea Stadium and on New York's sports talk radio station.
Despite the offseason addition of ace pitcher Johan Santana, the Mets never found their groove. Even when things briefly went their way, Randolph caused trouble.
Coming off a two-game sweep at Yankee Stadium in mid-May, the first black manager in New York baseball history created a stir by suggesting in a newspaper interview that he was portrayed on Mets broadcasts differently than a white manager might be.
Randolph brought up the race issue as he detailed the way he's been shown by SNY, the team's TV network.
"Is it racial?" Randolph was quoted. "Huh? It smells a little bit. ... I don't know how to put my finger on it, but I think there's something there."
A couple of days later, Randolph apologized to Mets ownership, SNY and his players "for the unnecessary distraction" he'd created.
Late last month, Randolph got a temporary reprieve when he met with ownership.
"Willie's job was never in danger going into this meeting," Minaya said after the session. "Willie has my support. He has the support of our ownership. ... There is no limbo period. Willie is the manager."
But no promises for the future were made.