The Mets take a Mickey and he knocks them out

Callaway takes in Citi Field, where he got a personal welcome from the Mets as their new manager Monday.

Callaway takes in Citi Field, where he got a personal welcome from the Mets as their new manager Monday.

When the Yankees shoved the Indians out of this postseason, Indians manager Terry Francona predicted his pitching coach, Mickey Callaway, might find work as another team’s manager if he had a mind to do so. Francona should be playing the stock market. Callaway has done just that, with the Mets hiring him to succeed Terry Collins.

Callaway made an immediate splash in the pool of the cynical New York market that is the Mets’ lot to navigate. A man who speaks of due diligence when it comes to keeping the Mets’ talented but too much bruised pitching staff healthy, and who speaks of getting the other players on his page without sounding like a tinpot tyrant or an indifferent district supervisor has a two balls, no strikes count on him already.

The New York Daily News‘s John Harper—who once co-authored a book about an absolute nadir in Mets history, The Worst Team Money Could Buy, about a season in hell with the 1992 edition—wondered, however, about whether Callaway can overcome the “stigma” attached to pitching coaches turned managers.

Harper called on one man who has overcome the actual or alleged stigma, Bud Black, now the manager of the Rockies and formerly the manager of the Padres. Black, in case you were asleep at the switch this season, took this year’s Rockies to the wild card game. It made him a candidate to win a second Manager of the Year award.

“I threw a disclaimer out there,” said Black on Monday of his first appearance on the Padres’ bridge. “I said, ‘Am I going to talk to you about hitting mechanics or turning a double play? No. I know that I haven’t been in your shoes, but my staff is here for that, and here’s how I feel about how we’re going to play as a team. Or here’s my opinion on why we’re striking out too much.’

“Listen, players are going to watch any manager,” continued Black, who was Mike Scioscia’s pitching coach during the Angels’ early ascension to greatness before the Padres brought him aboard. “There’s a certain baseball intellect we all have regardless of what position we play, and managing is a position that requires leadership skills. Once the players understand who you are, it becomes more about the person, your intellect and attitude. I tried to let that occur naturally. I think it has to happen that way.”

Former pitchers/pitching coaches aren’t exactly unheard of for championship managing, either. Or getting close enough to it. A failed relief pitcher named Tommy Lasorda eventually won seven pennants and two World Series managing the Dodgers; a journeyman relief pitcher named Dallas Green won the Phillies’ first World Series as their manager despite most of the team despising his bull in the china shop style.

Hall of Fame pitcher named Bob Lemon calmed a Yankee clubhouse roiled by Billy Martin’s street brawler style, until he was fired mid-season over his big mouth, and led it to the 1978 World Series title. With 25 games left in strike-disrupted 1981, the low-keyed Lemon was handed the Yankee bridge again and got them to the World Series—where they lost to Lasorda’s Dodgers.

Former pitchers such as Kid Gleason and Roger Craig went on to win pennants. Former pitcher/pitching coach John Farrell picked the Red Sox up from the Bobby Valentine nightmare of 2012 and won the 2013 World Series managing them.

Callaway was loved and respected with the Indians while he shepherded their pitching staff to greatness. So much so that outfielder Jay Bruce, whom the Mets dealt to the Tribe for the stretch drive and who proved big enough in helping the Indians get as far as the division series, is said to be talking about re-signing with the Mets now that he’s a free agent.

“Mickey is a really good communicator with everybody, whether it’s a Cy Young guy or a guy that has been up and down,” Indians relief star Andrew Miller told the New York Post. “I think his personality will work as a manager like it did as a pitching coach. He is always prepared. The stuff the Indians do for the playoffs in advance is very impressive. He will be missed in Cleveland and has a bright future as a manager. He will be good.”

If Callaway’s introductory remarks with the Mets are any indication, his new players will love playing for him. The word is that he’s already talked to team captain David Wright, who may yet be coming to the end of a career that injuries have kept from securing as a Hall of Fame career, and the word about that is that Wright is more than just on board with him.

“We’re going to take our players and maximize their strengths, every time. You show them every day that you care about them and we will care about them. It won’t just be an act,” Callaway said. Right there the Met clubhouse ought to be a vast improvement.

“We’re going to spend time with these guys in the clubhouse and I’m going to love every one of them,” continued Callaway, who’s going to be just about the final call on the next Met coaching staff, particularly his pitching coach. “I’m going to show them day in and day out, by the decisions I make, the way I communicate with them, that I truly, truly care about them.”

He’ll have his work cut out for him. Of their still-promising starting rotation, only Jacob deGrom survived 2017 without one trip to the disabled list, and his 5.0 wins above a replacement-level player was the best on the Mets. With the Mets overhauling their training and medical staff, Callaway needs to find ways to keep Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zach Wheeler, and Steven Matz healthy enough to pitch to their talent.

Yoenis Cespedes, the biggest of the Mets’; big boppers, lost most of 2017 with hamstring and knee issues. There’s probably a big frustration issue in Cespedes after that. Callaway needs to reach him, help keep him healthy, and help keep him from wondering when he’s going to have a chance to drive in more than a run at a time, usually himself with a launch over the fence.

The same probably applies to Michael Conforto, whose season got wiped with a shoulder injury, too. Keeping him healthy means taking some of the load off Cespedes.

Other than likely Rookie of the Year candidate Amed Rosario, the Mets’ infield needs an overhaul. Domonic Smith may prove himself an everyday first baseman, but the middle infield needs resolution and Wright’s situation needs likewise. The bullpen needs more. Familia’s return to health would be big. Trustworthy arms behind him—and, possibly, Addison Reed, if the Mets re-sign him after dealing him to the Red Sox in a desperation trade—would be bigger.

Callaway’s hiring is also liable to cost them hitting coach Kevin Long, who interviewed for the job as well, but considering the inconsistency of the Mets at the plate this season—they hit .250 as a team, which isn’t terrible, but they didn’t always swing with consistent authority—Long’s loss might not really be a loss. He has permission to talk to other teams looking for a manager. 

But Callaway knows he’s not a pitching coach anymore. He’s going to have a whole roster with which to concern himself. And he’s not worried. He learned up close and personal how to do that with Terry Francona in Cleveland. If Bruce really is willing to return to the Mets as a free agent because Callaway is there now, that’s a very encouraging signal for how Callaway will mesh with the entire clubhouse.

Callaway flashed a smile big enough to ignite Broadway as he donned a Mets jersey with number 36 on it. Once upon a time, that number belonged to Jerry Koosman, a lefthanded pitcher who was second to Johnny Bench as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1968, and was right behind Tom Seaver in the Met rotation for their first period of competitiveness, including a miracle World Series.

Koosman wore a similar big smile when the going was good. Callaway has to step up big to make the going good for the Mets again. He already took the first step in that direction Monday. It was the first positive moment for the Mets in too long this year.

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