The least unpredictable fact when the regular season ended was Mickey Callaway’s job status. Never mind the Mets’ little comedy of an organizational meeting without him; the question was when, not whether Callaway had a date with the executioner.
Thursday proved the when. Mickey’s monkey is off the Mets’ backs.
At least Mets chief Jeff Wilpon and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen had the decency to fly to Callaway’s Florida home and tell him to his face. They didn’t send a flunky to do the firing for them, the way George Steinbrenner once did with Clyde King when he decided he wouldn’t fire Yogi Berra because the players did.
Even the Mets’ deceptive second-half self-resurrection, pulling them as close as two games from at least a wild card game entry but not quite close enough, wasn’t enough to save Callaway’s job. Or, for that matter, bench coach Jim Riggleman’s.
They brought Riggleman in to help shepherd Callaway through game situations. Riggleman doesn’t exactly have a sterling managerial record himself. And based on a lot of the Mets’ results this season, whether in the first half nightmare or the deceptive second half revival, it didn’t seem as though Riggleman was the best bridge lieutenant.
It’s a shame after a year during which the Mets yielded up the likely no-questions-asked National League Rookie of the Year (Pete Alonso) and possible second-straight National League Cy Young Award winner. (Jacob deGrom.) It’s no surprise, though, after the Mets played thrilling baseball one minute and looked like crisis junkies the next.
But time and again in the diciest moments Callaway’s moves blew up in his face, sometimes because that’s the way of the game and oftentimes because he wasn’t exactly the most in-tune observer of the moment.
One of them almost cost him his job in June. Against the Cubs in Wrigley Field, Callaway let Seth Lugo go out for a second inning’s relief work on a day Lugo didn’t exactly have his A game in his first inning’s work but Callaway had a fresh (and as yet uninjured) Robert Gsellman and his closer Edwin Diaz ready in the pen.
So Lugo went out for the eighth, fed Kyle Schwarber a hanger he was lucky didn’t disappear across the street but went up the middle for a shallow hit, walked Anthony Rizzo a fly out later, and served Javier Baez a meaty slider to serve into the right field bleachers, turning the game into a 5-3 Cub lead that held up through the ninth.
There wasn’t a reporter in the room who wouldn’t ask why Callaway stayed with a faltering Lugo who’d struggled to survive the seventh, or why he didn’t think to bring in Diaz to try for a five-out save after Schwarber’s single. Callaway snapped at Newsday writer Timothy Healey in particular, and so did then-Mets pitcher Jason Vargas, who threatened to “knock you the [fornicate] out.”
Right then and there another team’s general manager would have dumped Callaway and shuttled Vargas right the hell out of town. Right then and there nothing of the sort happened. It wasn’t Callaway’s first head-scratcher from the bridge and it sure as hell wouldn’t be the last:
* He often pulled his starting pitchers when they were more or less cruising and at extreme minimal pitch counts only to be caught by not having allowed his relievers enough warmup time. And this was from a manager who probably knew in his heart of guts that he could trust most of his bullpen the way a cobra would trust a mongoose on a dinner date.
* He never quite clued in to the idea that a lot of his pitchers were more comfortable throwing to Tomas Nido behind the plate—with the numbers to back them up—than Wilson Ramos. This is probably on general manager Brodie Van Wagenen as well, but it merely amplified a key Mets dilemna: choosing between a catcher who could hit but didn’t always get the best out of his pitchers, or a catcher who usually got his pitchers’ best but couldn’t hit with the Washington Monument.
* Granted he had a bullpen of 98 percent arsonists, but he sometimes over-used his better bulls and never really defined who’d be doing what, particularly with his high-priced closer Edwin Diaz, who turned into a season-long mess wondering who’d burglarised him and made off with his once-deadly slider.
* In early September, with the Mets down 9-6 in the seventh, Callaway ordered an intentional walk to the Phillies’ number eight hitter to load the bases, even knowing Bryce Harper, who hadn’t started that day, loomed as a pinch hitter for Phillies reliever Mike Morin, merely because Callaway wanted Morin out of the game—which Morin was liable to be, anyway, after the inning ended.
Then Mets reliever Taylor Bashlor walked Harper unintentionally to bring home the tenth Phillies run. Be careful what you wish for.
Well respected as a pitching coach with the Indians, from whence the Mets hired him, Callaway—according to several published reports since his execution—rarely if ever drew on his pitching knowledge to give his pitchers more than cursory counsel. About the only thing he may have done, the reports say, was fume when pitching coach Dave Eiland was canned in favour of octogenarian Phil (The Vulture) Regan, who actually proved a lot more effective with Mets pitchers.
Callaway may also have helped cook himself by contravening earlier promises to open wider communication lines with his players. He’s said instead to have isolated himself in his office far more often and delegated far too many more responsibilities to his coaches.
And Mets players weren’t the only ones tempted to believe Callaway was really a front office plant who didn’t always call the shots. Nobody seemed to know whether his marching orders and in-game maneuvers came from Callaway himself, or from Van Wagenen, or even from chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon.
The only thing anyone knew was that, whether the Mets looked falling apart or looked like they’d really sneak into even the wild card picture, Callaway resembled a ship’s captain who couldn’t really believe torpedoes were striking for the hull and wouldn’t give the appropriate orders to cut them off.
So the question becomes whom the Mets will bring aboard to succeed Callaway. The answer may not be simple. And some of the options a lot of fans seem to favour may end up being worse.
One rumour has it that the Mets have eyes on former Cardinal manager Mike Matheny. Because he has postseason experience. Never mind that Matheny blew a couple of postseasons with his own head scratchers and refusal to contravene The Book, and blew up his own clubhouse in early 2018 (hence the advent of Mike Schildt) when he turned out to have a taste for engaging veteran snitches to play fun police with his young team.
Another suggests former Yankee manager Joe Girardi. Postseason experience. World Series ring. Itching to get back on the bridge. Except that Girardi is better suited, really, to a mostly veteran club, not a largely youthful club such as the Mets are now, something he may have proven when he had the vaunted Yankee youth in their first true season together but may have lacked for real communication with them.
A third suggests former Yankee, Diamondback, and Oriole manager Buck Showalter. Nice idea until he gets you to the postseason, refuses just like Matheny to throw The Book to one side despite the game situation demanding it, leaves his best relief pitcher in the bullpen because it’s just not a proper “save” situation, and watches a three-run homer fly into the left field seats with the other guys’ pennant attached.
A fourth suggests freshly deposed Cub manager Joe Maddon. Wonderful with youth and vets alike. Actual or alleged cursebuster. World Series winner. Postseason entrant. And probably more likely to have his eyes on southern California, where the Angels for whom he worked eons need to replace freshly executed Brad Ausmus and the Padres need to replace last-minute in-season execution Andy Green.
But a fifth pair presents a little intrigue. One involves Edgardo Alfonso, once a fine third baseman for the Mets and lately a winning manager for their Brooklyn Cyclones farm. The other involves Luis Rojas, currently the Mets’ quality control coach, who also managed a lot of the younger Mets in the minors and who’s said to have enormous respect from most Mets players.
Rojas comes by his baseball knowledge more than honestly: he’s also the son of longtime player and respected former manager Felipe Alou. (No, there was no extramarital hanky panky: The family name is Rojas, actually, and reads properly as Rojas-Alou, in the Spanish custom of the paternal family name coming first. The Giants scout who first signed Felipe Alou mistook the matronymous “Alou” for the proper family surname.)
Other candidates? Depending on where you look, they include current Astros bench coach Joe Espada (whose boss A.J. Hinch is a Van Wagenen friend), current Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar (once a Met player), former Mets bench coach Bob Geren (now Dave Roberts’s consigliere with the Dodgers), current Pirates third base coach Joey Cora (brother of Red Sox manager Alex and former Mets minor league manager), and former Mets infielder Joe McEwing. (Now White Sox manager Rick Renteria’s consigliere, but was a finalist for the job Callaway got with the Mets.)
But if Callaway really was just an errand boy for Van Wagenen as often as not, maybe the Mets need to re-think Van Wagenen, too. It seems strange to say about a team that finished third in the National League East and ten games over .500, but the Mets are probably due for the overhaul few seem to think they’re ready to deliver. Third and .531 look a lot better on paper than the Mets really looked this year.