Esposito: Callaway’s First Time At The Right Time

While there may be a passel of minor league managers who are wondering, “Hey, we’ve paid our dues…,” it quickly became obvious to Mets GM Sandy Alderson that new Mets skipper Mickey Callaway was the right man at the right time.

Alderson unintentionally implied that he had to convince Callaway to take the job when the 42-year-old former pitcher was introduced at a Citi Field presser, but in truth it was love at first bite. CEO Fred Wilpon hosted a three-hour lunch with Callaway at a Manhattan restaurant.

“He came back too exhausted to say anything but yes,” joked Anderson.

But Callaway couldn’t wait to call the family with the good news. He was about to be named the 21st manager in Mets history with a three-year deal (and fourth-year club option), the eighth first-time skipper and third former pitcher to run the club, with George Bamberger (1982-83, 81-127) and Dallas Green (1993-96, 229-283) the other ex-hurlers on this short list.

Callaway repeatedly threw around the word, “excited,” like a kid’s first trip to Disneyland at his introduction.

“I’m probably the most excited guy you’re going to see in a long time.”

You have to love a baseball-loving lifer who came from a baseball-loving family, so much so that he was was named after Mickey Mantle, while his brother was named after Casey Stengel.

He has taken the number 36 (a memorable number in Mets history, see Jerry Koosman), which is what he wore as a member of the Texas Rangers in 2004. He also has worn 51 and 61 in a brief career pitching for three clubs, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, and Texas. He was drafted in the seventh round by Tampa Bay in 1996.

Overall, his pitching numbers weren’t memorable (40 games, 20 starts, 4-11 mark, 6.27 ERA). In ‘05/’06, he pitched for the Hyundai Unicorns (yes, Unicorns), of the South Korean League. He also pitched briefly in Taiwan.

Anderson and his lieutenants first compiled a list of some 35 candidates to be considered once it was determined that Terry Collins would not return as manager. That “roster” was whittled down to a select six to be interviewed, and that group included Alex Cora (who ended up being named the new Red Sox skipper), Joe McEwing, Manny Acta, batting coach Kevin Long, and the surprise candidate – MLB broadcaster and former ballplayer Mark DeRosa.

Interestingly, Collins was not asked for his opinion in his new position as special assistant to the GM. Anderson answered with a quick, terse, “no,” when asked if Collins had been consulted.

K-Long didn’t get the gig, but he may be in line for the Nationals opening.

“Kevin interviewed very well and was disappointed with our decision,” admitted Alderson.

If Long doesn’t rate a managerial position, Alderson left the door open for a return to the organization. “Right now it’s still a possibility he will be back. We just have to wait and see.”

Callaway comes aboard as a first-timer albeit with a litany of managerial influences in his background. Of course his time in Cleveland under the highly regarded Terry Francona as his pitching coach the last five years gives Callaway a successful blueprint to build upon.

“I couldn’t have been around anyone better to prepare for this job,” Callaway said. “He’s the best, bar none.”

Game decisions will also reflect that influence. “Knowing just the way (Francona) prepped for a game, the in-game management stuff will be well-thought out. We’re going to take our players and maximize our strengths every time.”

The Memphis native also has absorbed managerial skills by osmosis from his playing career. He’s pitched for Mike Scioscia while with the Angels – which also featured Joe Maddon and Bud Black on the staff. Buck Showalter was his skipper with Texas.

Callaway was named Cleveland’s minor league pitching coordinator in 2012 and by 2013 he was guiding the young arms for Tito with the big club.

He had good young arms to guide, as in Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw. And under his watch, Kluber won a Cy Young. Callaway also gets credit for guiding the Indians’ staff which led the majors last year in ERA (3.30), strikeouts (1,614), shutouts (19) and complete games (7).

(Hey kids, if you’d like to know what is a complete game, ask your grandfather.)

Callaway’s hurlers also came in third in opponents batting average (2.36).

The Indians staff actually led the AL in strikeouts in each of the last four years years under Callaway’s tutelage (‘14-’17).

When Callaway called his Cleveland pitchers to let them know he was headed to New York, he admitted he teared up. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and expects that sense of caring to fare well in his new position.

“Tito empowered me to do everything I could to make us the most successful staff we could be. I realized very quickly that I’m not just a pitching coach. I have to manage all these people and their personalities. I know there’s a process for that.”

Of course any introductory press conference is going to be filled with rhetoric and promise.

“We’re going to care more about the players than anyone has before,” promised Callaway. Not an inference that Mets managers had not cared for their players – Collins certainly stood by his club – but a statement of commitment to honor.

“We’re going to know they’re human beings. Their numbers are going to be a byproduct of how durable, prepared and aggressive they are. We’re not going to have expectations on numbers.”

Not going to have expectations on numbers? Well, that could be debated, but that durable word can certainly prompt some thoughts as well.

The 2017 Mets certainly came in with high expectations, but it was their lack of durability that sunk their goals. Callaway had thoughts on that as well. Without being too specific, he generalized about injuries.

“I am very aware that there are a ton of things that can be implemented to keep pitchers healthy. Whatever those might be, we’ll implement those things.”

We’re sure your new pitching staff are looking forward to those criteria.

Interestingly, pitchers rarely are named managers. As noted, Callaway is just the third former hurler to run the Mets. Some former pitchers have had success being the head man – Black had his Rockies in the Wild Card game. But this is the rarity, not the norm.

Of the Top 50 men to ever manage in terms of wins, only Tommy Lasorda stood out as a former pitcher, and he was 20th. When looking further down the list, Roger Craig was 86th. Black was 87th.

Alderson admitted that many clubs are “reluctant to name pitching coaches as managers, but in our situation, pitching is everything. That’s our strength.”

Alderson has had a good batting average naming managers in the past. In Oakland, he inherited the fiery Billy Martin. Eventually he brought in Tony LaRussa, and that worked out pretty, pretty, pretty good. (Right, Larry David?) In San Diego, he named Black. Here, he inherited Collins, but overall, that was fairly successful as well with a World Series appearance.

He also admitted choices such as these will always be a crapshoot.

“I think you’re always taking a gamble. Nobody is the perfect candidate., or the perfect interview, or the perfect interviewer. But we feel very good about the basis on which we made a selection.”

Mets fans certainly hope so, as Callaway actually implied a bit of an expectation.

“I see a team than can contend and compete with anybody.”

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