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Four making playoff managerial debuts

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NEW YORK—Late in the season, as the N.Y. Mets closed in on their NL East championship, one opponent after another sat in the visitors’ dugout at Citi Field and commended manager Terry Collins.

“Real happy for T.C.,” was the sentiment echoed by Atlanta skipper Fredi Gonzalez and others.

The popular Collins, at 66 the oldest manager in the majors and the consummate example of a baseball lifer, is about to make his playoff managerial debut.

He’s one of four bench bosses who reached the post-season for the first time this year—each the fulfilment of a unique journey.

“It means a lot to me,” Collins said late last week.

“We sat up here and we told our fan base and our media that it’s going to get better, and next year we’re going to win,” he noted.

“And then to be sitting today and say we told you, it means a lot. It does.”

Texas rookie Jeff Banister, Toronto retread John Gibbons, and Houston whiz kid A.J. Hinch are the other managers making their initial playoff moves this month.

In his second stint running the Blue Jays, Gibbons finally guided them to their first playoff berth in 22 years.

The AL East champs host Banister and the Rangers on Thursday in the opener of their best-of-five division series.

“I was able to exhale a little bit,” Gibbons said. “A lot of satisfaction.”

Now comes the hard part.

Even the first-timers are well aware that being a novice is no picnic in the playoffs, when every pressure-packed decision gets magnified and scrutinized.

Plenty of successful managers, from Casey Stengel and Grady Little years ago to Matt Williams and Ned Yost just last season, have been widely criticized—even vilified—for fateful moves gone wrong.

At this time of year, fans are not forgiving.

“The first thing you have to do is forget about the regular season,” said Hall-of-Fame hockey coach Scotty Bowman, who chatted with Gibbons behind the batting cage Saturday before the Jays faced Tampa Bay.

“The way you played in the season is probably not going to be good enough,” he noted.

“You’ve got to be a little better.”

Bowman won a record nine Stanley Cups. Collins and the rest of this year’s playoff neophytes, meanwhile, have been working their entire careers to earn one shot at a World Series ring.

“I’m a baseball guy and I’m a baseball development guy,” noted Collins, who leads the Mets against the Dodgers beginning Friday night in L.A.

“This summer, all I did was write the lineup and try to keep the clubhouse a fun place to be, and it worked out,” he remarked.

“So I was pretty happy the other day when we won that thing.”

Hinch gets the first crack at winning in the playoffs when his surprising Astros play at Yankee Stadium in the AL wild-card game tonight.

“Octobers usually come through New York. At least they have in my career,” Hinch noted yesterday.

Hinch was 34, and by far the youngest manager in the majors, when the Stanford graduate took over the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009.

With no previous experience in that role, his ineffective tenure didn’t last long. But he’s been a big hit this year in his first season piloting the young Astros.

“Very open door. Very much a player’s manager,” said Houston ace Dallas Keuchel.

“For us, that’s great. We need a guy like that, that lets us play,” he noted.

“Kind of a trial by fire but he has our backs,” Keuchel added.

“That’s what he’s done all year.”

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