FAIR IS FAIR, or so goes the rationale each time a person of color puts that shoe on the other foot and sticks it in his or her mouth.

You play the race card, sometimes the race card plays you.

Except that it really shouldn't. When a member of a minority perceives bias, it really isn't the same as a member of the majority rationalizing bias. It's the difference between how a white man feels when pulled over at night and how a black man feels. Doesn't matter what happens next, whether the cop does his job professionally and without bias, whether the cop is black or white. Perception is about those first few seconds, and how different they feel depending on the color of your skin.

This week, Mets manager Willie Randolph said he has been treated different from other managers with similar records, in similar straits and, yes, with different color skin. After asking out loud, "Is it racial? . . . It smells a little bit," in a taped interview last weekend, Randolph has spent much of this week apologizing for a passioned and color-injected defense of his three-plus seasons as manager of the Mets.

"I shouldn't have said what I said," he said a couple of days after his outburst. "It was a mistake. As simple as that. It was a mistake. And there is no excuse for that. No excuses."

Randolph then said the right thing, the rehearsed thing - that his team's inconsistencies this year and at the end of last year opened him up for criticism. He said he was frustrated at the time of the interview, even tried the old "I thought it was off the record" defense, but never recanted the original thought - that how he is presented by the Mets' TV network was tinted by his race.

In fact, he said this:

"What I said was what it felt like to me."

Ah, perception. It rules the day. Randolph grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn (Mike Tyson's old digs), played for the hometown Yankees for most of his career, was a quiet and respected member of those wild and crazy Bronx Zoo Yankees of the late 1970s, the ones with Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin. It's one reason the Mets hired him: As a player and a coach, he's worn a New York uniform through four decades without creating a shred of controversy - until now.

His emotional tirade to the Record on Sunday had less to do with the team's play than how he reacted to it - or didn't. It had to do with what the camera shows during games, and what it doesn't.

"They're the artists, I'm the canvas," he said of the TV coverage. "They paint the picture the way they want to. They want to show me when somebody gives up a home run or somebody makes an error, so they want to see me [using profanity] . . . That's not how I lead."

To him, the traits Joe Torre was lauded for as Yankees manager - stoic, calm, polite - are deemed to be his greatest flaws. His lack of visible passion, seen as a managing attribute when he was hired, is now perceived - that word again - as a factor in the Mets struggles. Randolph's aging and overpriced team unraveled last season and has not found its footing this season.

Publication of his outburst was followed by three straight losses to the Braves.

"You watch any manager in baseball, you see him look like a bump on the log sitting there," Randolph said during the interview in which he introduced race. "They don't move, they don't talk. I'm as animated and as demonstrative and as involved and as intense as any manager in baseball."

Torre's Yankees, especially the teams from this decade, often fell short of expectations, too, yet only in the final two seasons was his approach questioned. But Torre won four world championships in his first five seasons as Yankees manager, a fact Randolph - a Yankees coach back then - knows all too well.

As beloved as he was as a Yankee, Willie also know that it took him a lot longer to get his first chance to manage a team than it took Torre to get his second, third and fourth chances.

Does that influence his perceptions? Hard to believe it doesn't.

Does it make him racist?

Nah, just human.

"I mean, I've said some stuff, too," Reds manager Dusty Baker said in the wake of Randolph's comments. "Sometimes it could be some stuff you've been feeling for a long time, you know what I mean?" *

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