NEW YORK -- The word slipped out accidentally, one of those Freudian slip things. In discussing Gregg Jefferies and his playing third base next season, Bud Harrelson began the sentence with the phrase, "If I'm back . . ."
That first word, that "if," was the first acknowledgment by Harrelson that he may not occupy the manager's office at Shea Stadium beyond the weekend, when the New York Mets close out the home season. Harrelson also disclosed that he will remain with the Mets in some capacity next year. Of course, that was before Frank Cashen announced he was stepping down as general manager, to be replaced by Al Harazin next season.
Speculation Harrelson won't be back as manager in 1992 has been constant in New York newspapers and on radio and TV broadcasts the past month, since the Mets fell out of the National League East race. Harrelson says he doesn't read the papers much anymore and has had little to say to beat writers who cover the club.
But Harrelson doesn't need to read a paper or turn up the volume of a TV or radio to know his situation isn't good. He is at the helm of a club that was supposed to challenge for the division title. Even with back-to-back wins going into yesterday, the Mets (74-79) face the possibility of finishing below .500 for the first time since 1983 (68-94). Harrelson's own record since succeeding Davey Johnson as manager May 29, 1990, is slightly above .500 (143-137).
"I'm a realist," Harrelson said, sounding like a man acutely aware blame for such a season falls on the manager. "[The Mets] making a change is a distinct possibility. Heck, it's already part of my contract."
If Harrelson doesn't return as manager, it won't be because he was fired. The Mets have an option on his contract for 1992 that guarantees him a job in the organization, even if he doesn't manage. According to Harrelson's contract, if the Mets don't retain him as manager, they must offer him another position under a personal-services deal. Harrelson's salary as manager is reportedly $300,000. He would probably earn half that amount in another role.
What that role might be is also open to speculation. Harrelson is unlikely to accept a position as manager or coach in the minors. He could be retained as a third base coach, which is also improbable, although Harrelson does not rule it out.
"It would depend on who the new manager is," he said.
But Harrelson does not act as if he expects to do something else next season. He goes about his business as if he will be back. He participated in organizational meetings earlier this week with executives, scouts, managers, coaches and instructors throughout the system. Still, his questionable status remains a concern. Friday, Cashen said Harrelson's status for next season will be his last decision as general manager, and will not be made until after Sunday's final game.
"I hope whatever Frank decides, he'll let me know soon," Harrelson said. "I don't want to wait until after the World Series. I'll talk to him. I'll be diplomatic. I'll tell him I'll be a good boy."
Harrelson, who has been employed by the Mets in one form or another for all but three years since he signed with them as a player in 1963, intends to stay in the organization, so he won't blast the front office or the players for the situation in which he finds himself. He doesn't think the volume of criticism is warranted but refuses to complain.
"I just wish some of the things that have come out weren't so personal," Harrelson said. "I've seen some real vindictiveness. It's too bad."
Harrelson's problems with the media began early in the season, when he refused to continue taking part in a pre-game interview show on WFAN-AM. He already was being criticized for rearranging the infield. After using Howard Johnson at shortstop, Jefferies at third base and Tommy Herr at second through spring training, Harrelson inserted Kevin Elster at shortstop, which meant shifting Johnson to third and Jefferies to second.
Where Harrelson has been found most lacking is his control of the clubhouse. When Jefferies was pushed to deliver an open letter to critical teammates through WFAN, Harrelson did not step in. When Vince Coleman openly criticized coach Mike Cubbage before a game in July, Harrelson did not take action against Coleman until three days later.
All that is past, but Harrelson's future is uncertain because of it. Late next month, he will undergo reconstructive surgery on his right knee. By then, he hopes to know what he will be doing once