NEW YORK (AP) Late in the season, as manager Terry Collins and the New York Mets closed in on their NL East championship, one opponent after another made it a point to commend Collins at Citi Field.
''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 postseason for the first time this year - each the fulfillment of a unique journey.
''It means a lot to me,'' Collins said recently. ''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. 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 October moves this month.
''I was able to exhale a little bit,'' Gibbons said about winning the AL East in his second stint as Blue Jays manager.
Toronto is a playoff team for the first time in 22 years. Josh Donaldson and Co. will host Banister and the Rangers on Thursday in the opener of their best-of-five Division Series.
''A lot of satisfaction,'' Gibbons said. ''Because I mean, really, it was a long time coming - but not just for me here. You look at the organization all those years and a lot of people have been around. I'm more happy for guys that have been around here forever that went through the lean years. I don't put a whole lot of focus on myself.''
Gibbons surely knows being a novice is no picnic in the playoffs, when every pressure-packed decision gets scrutinized by millions. Plenty of managers, from Casey Stengel and Grady Little to Matt Williams and Ned Yost just last year, have been widely criticized - even vilified - for fateful moves gone wrong.
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 Blue Jays faced Tampa Bay. ''The way you played in the season is probably not going to be good enough. 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 are all looking for a first championship.
''I'm a baseball guy and I'm a baseball development guy,'' said Collins, who leads the Mets into their series against the NL West champion Dodgers beginning Friday night in Los Angeles. ''This summer, all I did was write the lineup and try to keep the clubhouse a fun place to be, and it worked out. 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 Astros play at Yankee Stadium in the AL wild-card game Tuesday night.
''Octobers usually come through New York - at least they have in my career,'' he said Monday.
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 on the bench, his unsuccessful 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. For us, that's great. We need a guy like that, that lets us play,'' Houston ace Dallas Keuchel said. ''Kind of a trial by fire, but he has our backs. That's what he's done all year.''
Collins could hardly be more opposite. He's managed in Japan and Venezuela, Vero Beach and Buffalo. He coached with Tampa Bay, scouted for the Chicago Cubs and spent more than a decade all told during separate stints in the Dodgers organization.
Along the way, the diminutive pepper pot developed a fiery reputation and seemingly crossed paths with almost everyone working in baseball these days.
He managed Triple-A Albuquerque to a 1987 minor league championship in the Pacific Coast League. But until now, his only chance to wear a big league uniform in the postseason came as mentor Jim Leyland's bullpen coach with the 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Once he got his opportunity to manage in the majors, Collins finished in second place five times during the 1990s, his Astros and Angels teams squandering several late leads.
This time, the Mets made big moves to upgrade their muddling offense before the July 31 trade deadline. Given enough talent to win for the first time during his five-year tenure in New York, Collins guided the Mets expertly as they pulled away from heavily favored Washington in the NL East.
It was no simple task, either. New York often juggled its rotation down the stretch in an effort to protect its prized young pitchers - decisions that sometimes ran counter to his old-school instincts.
''He says things when he needs to, but he's definitely not on us all the time,'' Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson said. ''Lets us go ahead and learn from our bruises - all right, we fell down, we've got to find a way to pick ourselves back up.''
Ready for his first postseason, that's one move Collins has already perfected.