Howe calls Mets' bluff

Confronted with rumors of his imminent firing Monday, Art Howe challenged the Mets to ax him immediately if a decision had truly been reached. <P> "I'd rather have it happen now," Howe said. "No sense in waiting. Give them a chance to get whoever they want in here to look at what they have, and prepare for the future. And why put me through this?"

For a man who has been called every name in the book in the two years since he's come to New York, this was something new: a bold statement from a manager ready to fall on his sword.

If anyone had any doubt that the team has decided to can Howe at the end of this season, which will be the Mets' third straight sub-.500 season and their second losing season in as many years under this manager, the proof arrived on Monday at Shea Stadium.

GM Jim Duquette denied that any decision had been reached on Friday to fire Howe – a New York Daily News report stated club chairman Fred Wilpon had been convinced to do so at the conclusion of this season – but Mets officials weren't exactly outraged by the idea of Howe's firing. Instead, it was par for the course, more like an upcoming event for which the writing had been on the wall.

Strike one.

Neither Fred nor Jeff Wilpon were made available for comment to defend Howe's standing with the club, with Duquette instead dispatched to speak for ownership. No sense in dirtying the organization's hands further – this mess begins and ends in Howe's office.

Strike two.

If the Mets do not intend to honor Howe's commitment to manage the club through 2006, which they obviously do not, they must let him go now.

Letting Howe – who, wins and losses aside, is still a very nice person with a solid baseball pedigree – twist in the wind for the final three weeks of the season serves no constructive purpose other than to further embarrass the man, who is quickly gaining sympathy in the public eye for the coldness he's receiving from the organization.

Howe said that the Mets should replace him with whoever they want to fill the manager's chair for the last three weeks of the season. The problem is that Lou Piniella isn't available to scribble Jeff Keppinger's name in the lineup card just yet.

Whether or not the Devil Rays would ever let Piniella go remains to be seen, but at least for the last three weeks of the year, Don Baylor would be available as an in-house replacement with managerial experience. He'd be more than happy to assume control of the club: Call it a warm-up to vault into a possible job next year.

Of course, the Mets won't let Howe escape this mess that easily, instead choosing to keep him at the helm of a rudderless ship as some sort of cruel torture and punishment.

And that's strike three.

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