Mickey Callaway's recipe for surviving his first taste of Mets drama

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Monday, May 14, 2018

When his first season as New York Mets manager is complete and Mickey Callaway has time to reflect, he might look back on the second week in May as a painful-yet-necessary formative experience.

After the Mets went 0-6 on a homestand with Atlanta and Colorado, placed Todd Frazier and Jacob deGrom on the disabled list and made the difficult decision to designate Matt Harvey for assignment and trade him to Cincinnati, Callaway might have thought his team was due for a reprieve. Then, the self-inflicted portion of the program got underway: The Mets suffered a 2-1 loss to the Reds after blowing an opportunity to take an early lead because they batted out of order in the first inning.

No one knows exactly how the gaffe transpired or precisely what procedural changes the Mets have put in place to make sure it never happens again. But Callaway made sure of one thing -- the players knew he was both responsible and accountable. They knew because he gathered them in the clubhouse shortly after the final out and told them so.

"I called them in after the game and told them I messed up big time and we need to do a better job moving forward," Callaway said. "I took ownership of what happened, and I wanted them to hear that from me, not through the media.

"When you go through something like that, it's tough. It's probably something I'll never, ever forget about. Hopefully, I'll be doing this job for a long time and I'll be going through this process of checking lineup cards for a long time.

"Look, we're all human beings. We all make mistakes. I try not to worry about the things you can't control. But this is something you can control, and that's why it hurts so bad. If you're prepared and you do the things the right way and you fail, you can live with that. Obviously, we didn't do it the right way in this instance."

With the possible exception of Gabe Kapler, who was booed before the Phillies' home opener, none of baseball's five first-year managers has experienced a wider range of emotions than Callaway in the first six weeks of the season. After breaking out to a franchise-best 11-1 start, the Mets have gone 8-17 and given fans reason to wonder if they'll be looking up at everyone except the Miami Marlins in the National League East by September.

As the Mets regroup with an off day before a nine-game homestand at Citi Field, they have some nagging questions to resolve. Second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera has been the team's only consistent offensive producer through the first quarter of the season. Free-agent signee Jason Vargas has a 13.86 ERA in his first three outings and is being skipped a start. Shortstop Amed Rosario has a .273 OBP, and the catchers rank 29th in the majors with an aggregate .509 OPS. Injuries to Travis d'Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki created enough of a void for the Mets to take a shot on injury magnet Devin Mesoraco in the Harvey trade.

So what is a rookie manager to do during a stretch so relentlessly unforgiving, even a recent Yoenis Cespedes Garden Gnome Night and Jerry Blevins baseball sock giveaway couldn't lighten the mood? In Callaway's case, it was time to take a step back and review the guiding principles that landed him the job in the first place.

Before the Mets interviewed Callaway and signed him to a three-year contract in October as the organization's 21st manager, he wrote a 7,000-word treatise outlining his strategies and philosophies to running a team. A New York Times writer called the document his "manifesto." While Callaway jokes that he's not smart enough to use that word, he's perceptive enough to understand that a manager's approach can't change with daily pendulum swings.

"In times like this, when you're a leader, you have to lead even more," Callaway said. "For whatever reason, I'm a guy that doesn't get too emotional one way or the other when things are going good or bad, because I realize that is what's going to happen.

"I didn't think we were going to come in here and go 140-22 or whatever. I knew we were going to have ups and downs. When things are going like this, that's when you lean on that manifesto and re-read it and make sure that you're continuing to do all the things that you said you would do."

Amid the chaos and the setbacks, the new manager has projected an air of calm that has reassured the front office it made the right call. Through the team's first 37 games, Callaway has made some debatable bullpen and pinch-hitting decisions. One of those calls came Sunday against the Phillies, when he allowed right-hander Paul Sewald to face pinch-hitter Nick Williams instead of going with Blevins, the Mets' lefty specialist. Williams hit a three-run homer, and the Phillies came back to beat the Mets 4-2 in the series finale. The magnitude of the moment was compounded when the TV broadcast captured Blevins sighing and shaking his head in the bullpen in response.

Callaway, justifiably, was second-guessed for the decision. He has plenty of room for growth as a tactician. But he has also shown the humility and self-awareness to file away each questionable move or mistake for future reference and learn from it.

"He's been pretty much the same guy from day one," said John Ricco, the Mets' assistant general manager. "Even through this stretch where we haven't played as well, there's been a consistency of communication and thought. It's not like when things were great, he went it alone, and now he's asking for help, or vice versa. He's kind of a team guy. He uses his coaching staff and his front office on a regular basis, and that hasn't changed at all, one way or the other."

Callaway's response to the lineup-card fiasco was a prime case of using a setback to reinforce a more positive message. He immediately addressed the mistake with his players in the dugout, then made sure to repeat his explanation in the clubhouse because the relievers in the bullpen hadn't already heard it. Before telling his players to enjoy their day off, Callaway used the embarrassing loss as a springboard to a broader jumping-off point.

"It wasn't the only subject of the meeting," outfielder Michael Confortosaid. "He used it to tell us, 'This isn't the way we're going to be doing things over the course of the year as a whole.' Basically, he told us, 'We're going to do everything we can to start winning games, and we can use this as a point to move forward.' It was a good meeting for us to have. I think we all received it well."

After seven years under Terry Collins, the Mets went new-school with Callaway, whose extended run of success with the pitching staff in Cleveland made him a hot commodity last offseason. Now that the Reds have fired Bryan Price, Callaway and Colorado's Bud Black are the only two MLB managers with pitching backgrounds. But the Mets saw an empathy in Callaway, an embrace of modern analytics and an approachable demeanor that they thought would allow him to relate to all factions of the clubhouse and the organization.

Callaway learned the value of a self-deprecating sense of humor from five years as pitching coach in Cleveland under Terry Francona, who is beloved by his players in part because he's secure enough to joke about his baldness, the size of his nose or his lack of a sophisticated vocabulary. Callaway, similarly, took it in stride and absorbed constant ribbing from the Indians when he ranked two spots below Francona on writer Craig Calcaterra's annual list of baseball's handsomest managers in December.

"Can you believe that?'' Callaway said. "It was nonstop at the winter meetings. The whole Cleveland organization was texting me and teasing me."

It doesn't take much time around Callaway to see that he's a product of the Francona "tree." While Francona bonds with players over daily cribbage games, Callaway is constantly on the move from the clubhouse to the weight room to the batting cages. He's fueled by a natural gregariousness and the dozen or so cups of black coffee that he imbibes each day.

"It's just my drink of choice,'' Callaway said. "I like the taste, so I drink it. Obviously, I drink a lot of water too. It makes for an interesting day when you're having to manage a game because you can't take all those bathroom breaks."

An avid reader, Callaway is constantly on the lookout for information that might resonate with his players. In spring training, he gave several players copies of the James Kerr best-seller "Legacy," which chronicles the success of the All Blacks rugby team in New Zealand. He recently began reading Ben Horowitz's book, "The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers," after it was recommended to him by Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon.

Callaway's research has convinced him that players digest information more readily when it's dispensed in bite-size chunks, so he makes a point not to overwhelm them with verbiage.

"You can talk mechanics with somebody for an hour, and they only take so much of it," he said. "But if you find the most impactful thing that's really going to make it different and you talk about that one little thing -- maybe the way they lift their leg in their delivery -- they'll never forget that. There's been a lot of research out there about coaching, and those little two-second bursts of information are the things the best coaches have always done.

"I can call a guy into my office and talk to him for an hour once a week, or I can say, 'Hi, what's up, how you doing' five times a day, and the little, 'Hi, how you doing, how was your day' is much more impactful because you're doing it every day. I think Tito [Francona] was the best at that. It's showing guys that you don't just care about the player and how they're performing on the field, but you care about them as a person."

Jim Leyland, who won three pennants and a World Series over 22 seasons, routinely perused the team media guide for biographical snippets that might help him connect with players. Callaway tries to read everything that's written about his team, either because he might have to put out a brushfire or he could find a nugget that's a conversation starter.

Blevins, whose wife is about to give birth to their first child, recently took note when Callaway asked him how the expectant mom was faring.

"I've had managers in the past where it's strictly baseball," Blevins said. "It is what it is. It's work -- we come to work, and that's our daily task. It's a little more family here. Mickey is baseball first, but he also understands there are people's lives involved and we're around each other every day.

"I'm very positive about how he's been so far. It's easy to manage a team when you start out 12-2. Now we've faltered a little bit, and you haven't seen him change one bit, and that's huge for us because we feed off that. It's very reaffirming to know he's at the helm."

Callaway has quickly settled into a routine with the Mets. He has an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, three blocks from Central Park, and he enjoys popping into a delicatessen or coffee shop or just basking in the energy of the city when he has a free hour or two. Upon arrival at Citi Field, he works up a sweat on the Peloton bike in his office, then hits the weight room for a workout that includes everything but overhead presses. He can no longer abide them because of accumulated shoulder damage incurred during his pitching days with the Rays, Angels and Rangers.

When Callaway takes a seat for his daily media briefing at 4 p.m., he's in his element. He initially elicited some mild blowback for being overly expansive in interviews, but he has worked with the Mets' PR staff to be more concise with his comments. Those postseason media scrums in Cleveland in recent years were valuable training.

"It's literally like Cleveland in the World Series every day here," Callaway said. "But I really enjoy that part of it. It's part of the game in New York City just like it's part of the game in Boston, and it's necessary because there are so many passionate fans. I take the approach that I'm doing the media stuff for the fans because I'm talking to them through the reporters. They deserve to hear what's going on, good or bad."

The narrative surrounding his predecessor is a cautionary tale for Callaway. Collins led the Mets to the World Series in 2015 and was routinely referred to as a "players' manager" in New York, until the atmosphere grew tense and reports surfaced that he had lost the clubhouse. While it's far too early in Callaway's tenure to gauge his tolerance for extended adversity, he has sent a positive message to the players. The Mets are losing because they've been bad -- not because they're tight.

"He has this happy-go-lucky feel, even when we're down," said Frazier, who signed with New York as a free agent in February. "He doesn't have that 'God almighty, here we go again' feeling. New York can bite you in the butt any second of the day, and he's doing a great job with it. He's going about it the right way, answering all the questions and being the manager we want him to be."

As the short-term hits keep coming, Mickey Callaway subscribes to the notion that one regrettable lineup-card exchange or horrific stretch of baseball can't define a season -- or a managerial tenure. It's the best recipe for success in New York. And survival.