NEW YORK (AP) As the New York Mets soaked themselves with champagne in a cramped Wrigley Field clubhouse, manager Terry Collins stood nearby in a quiet spot, arm around his wife, Deborah, another gleaming smile on his face.
After a lifetime spent in baseball working all sorts of jobs in all kinds of towns, he was finally headed to the World Series.
''When we got together I told her, I said, `You don't know what you're getting into,''' Collins said. ''This is the culmination of a lot of pain, and a lot of tears, and a lot of the things that went on, but it's well worth it.''
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Until the past few months, the Mets may not have realized what they had in the popular Collins, at 66 the oldest manager in the majors. Finally given a New York team talented enough to win, he's pushed all the right buttons in his first postseason as a big league skipper, expertly piloting the NL East champs to a surprising pennant.
And just think, it only took him 1,688 regular-season games to reach the playoffs.
''Baseball has been my life - my whole life. I was one of those guys that started playing when he was 4 or 5,'' said Collins, whose father died just before spring training. ''So it's a special moment for me.''
For the Mets, too. Back in the World Series for the first time in 15 years, they'll play the AL champion Royals beginning Tuesday night in Kansas City.
Collins, no doubt, is a big reason for New York's success.
He made several pivotal and gutsy moves during Game 5 of the NL Division Series at Dodger Stadium, sticking with struggling ace Jacob deGrom early and then going to rookie Noah Syndergaard for his first career relief appearance in the seventh inning.
Collins also called on closer Jeurys Familia for a six-out save - even though Familia's rare turn at bat cost the Mets a better opportunity to extend their lead.
After some tense, pressure-packed moments, New York advanced with a hard-fought victory over Zack Greinke, and general manager Sandy Alderson said Collins did a ''masterful'' job.
Then, during a four-game sweep in the NL Championship Series, Collins turned the Mets loose on the basepaths even though they ranked last in the league in steals this season. It paid huge dividends against a Chicago Cubs team that had real trouble holding runners.
And he kept playing slumping first baseman Lucas Duda, who rewarded his manager with a home run and five RBIs in the Game 4 clincher.
''He's always very clear on what he expects of you,'' Mets playoff star Daniel Murphy said. ''You can't ask much more as a player.''
Collins is certainly enjoying this ride.
When his team clinched the division title in Cincinnati, he came back onto the field to celebrate with Mets fans who made the trip, spraying them with champagne. He did the same following Game 5 in Los Angeles, even getting a kiss on the cheek from an overjoyed man in the front row.
And after returning to New York following the sweep against the Cubs, Collins took his wife to dinner Thursday night. Patrons gathered for a salute and, quite literally, made him the toast of the town.
''The response at the restaurant was incredible - and I've eaten there a lot,'' Collins said.
Whether it be joking that his wife calls him an ''idiot'' after in-game moves backfire, or the fact he's barely taller than diminutive hitting coach Kevin Long, or when he kidded about star pitcher Matt Harvey making the team flight on time, the silver-haired Collins has shown his sense of humor to the media more and more during his five years in the Big Apple.
It's a sign of his transformation from an old-school manager with a previous reputation for being fiery and uncompromising, to one who more resembles a spunky grandfather with baseball savvy.
''Forty-five years and here's my first chance to do this,'' Collins said Friday. ''The one thing I said when I took this job, I was going to enjoy managing a lot more than I did in the past.''
Collins, who counts Jim Leyland as a crucial influence, still gets exercised and speaks his mind. But he's mellowed some, and developed a strong relationship with players on a Mets club that always gave him effort even when it was struggling the last few years.
That's a far cry from his days managing the Astros and Angels in the 1990s, when he finished second five times as his teams squandered several late leads. Players were so disenchanted with him when he resigned from the Angels in September 1999, there was even talk of mutiny.
''I took everything personal,'' Collins said. ''When I first started managing, I thought I ran a good game. I thought decisions I made were educated, and when they didn't work I was mad at myself. Unfortunately, I wore my emotions on my sleeve and the players saw it and thought I was mad at them, and therefore it didn't work.''
Now, he says he speaks with players more than ever before and often explains his decisions.
''When I first came here, one of the things that I absolutely worked on every single day was to talk to every player on the team. And the other thing that I do here is, my players have a say in stuff. They have a say in the rules. They have a say in dress codes. I want them to be a part of this whole thing,'' Collins said. ''That's being a better communicator.''
''I have no ego. I wasn't a star player,'' he added. ''I don't get caught up in headlines. I get caught up in, go have fun playing. ... Yeah, I think I've changed. No question about it.''
Collins managed in Japan and Venezuela, Vero Beach and Buffalo. He coached with Tampa Bay, scouted for the Cubs and spent more than a decade all told with the Dodgers during separate stints in their storied farm system.
Before the Mets hired him in November 2010, he hadn't been a big league skipper since `99. Some viewed him as simply a stopgap for a rebuilding franchise, and Alderson has acknowledged he considered firing Collins prior to this year.
Now, a leading contender for NL Manager of the Year, Collins still does not have a guaranteed contract beyond this season. The club holds an option for 2016, but it certainly appears he's earned an extension.
''T.C. brings energy every day, there's no doubt about that. I think if you talk to him for 30 seconds, you know how much passion he has for baseball,'' Murphy said. ''You've got to credit the skipper a great deal (for) keeping the fabric of this ballclub together when I think it so easily could have started falling apart.''