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http://www.nypost.com/seven/06192008/sports/mets/inside_jobbed_116236.htm Jerry Manuel's job as bench coach was to advise Willie Randolph, to give the Mets manager counsel on how to handle everything from game strategy to clubhouse politics.

However, friends of Randolph's told The Post that the now former manager had grown to believe Manuel actually might have been doing the opposite of helping him by undermining him to upper management. It is a charge Manuel denied late yesterday afternoon.

Randolph had spotted Manuel having a lengthy conversation on the field at Shea Stadium last week with Mets VP of player development Tony Bernazard, a known Randolph detractor. Randolph grew concerned Manuel was serving as a mole to the front office and he confronted Manuel about the meeting. Manuel denied anything nefarious in his face-to-face with Randolph.

But Randolph was fired on Monday night and his suspicions about Manuel widened after watching Manuel's introductory press conference to become interim manager, because Manuel was so explicit about the areas in which he would separate himself from Randolph.

It is Randolph's burgeoning belief that Manuel might have been pointing to just these areas as a way to knock Randolph and campaign to be his replacement.

Speaking before last night's game against the Angels, Manuel confirmed his on-field chat with Bernazard but strongly downplayed it.

"There's nothing to that, honestly," Manuel told The Post. "I've always gotten along real well with guys like [Mets assistant GM] John Ricco, guys like Tony Bernazard, Omar [Minaya]. The conversations are always about baseball: What are we doing, where are we going, are we trying different things. I never had any of these meetings secretly. Everyone could always see us talking."

Manuel also confirmed that an angry Randolph challenged him about the meeting with Bernazard.

"He asked me, and I understood completely, what with the way things have been around here the past few weeks, and with my name out there all the time as his successor," Manuel said.

Manuel said he understood Randolph's point after being fired himself as manager of the White Sox in 2003.

"Heck, I've been through that, not exactly the same way but close enough to where it makes perfect sense why you would be worried about what anyone's saying, whether it's about you or not," Manuel said.

Manuel hopes his fired predecessor doesn't hold a grudge over the incident.

"I have nothing but the deepest feeling for Willie and his family," Manuel said. "I would hate to think anyone ever thought I would do anything to hurt that man."

Bernazard was much less open about the incident than Manuel when approached by The Post on the field before last night's game.

"I don't have to answer for these rumors and assaults on my character," Bernazard said, refusing to let a reporter even finish the question.

Bernazard then asked a team public relations official to escort the reporter away from him as he returned to the clubhouse.

Manuel has made it clear right away Tuesday that he won't be anything like Randolph. That was obvious when he pulled a limping Jose Reyest.gif from Manuel's Mets debut in the first inning and made Reyes quickly apologize for the dugout tantrum that followed. Jose Reyes

Manuel's first lineup card Tuesday night also was a departure, as he gave third baseman David Wright his first break of the season from fielding duty by having him serve as the Mets' DH. Wright began the day as the only player in the big leagues to have played every inning of every game this year, which was in part a function of Randolph managing for his job and needing his best players in the lineup every day.

Manuel is in no such danger, which is why Wright and other prominent Mets can expect to have their roles tinkered. Manuel hinted one of his first moves could be moving Wright to the cleanup spot in place of Beltran on occasion.

"We're going to put our players in position to succeed and get the most out of their talents," Manuel said.

Additional reporting by Mike Vaccaro.

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