By Bob Nightengale |
New York Mets rookie manager Mickey Callaway gets up from behind his office desk, pulls out a chair, motions for you to sit down on the couch, and the conversation begins.
It’s almost as if he should be the one lying down, asking how one of the most vaunted pitching coaches in the land with the Cleveland Indians, helping his team come within one run of a World Series championship, landed in a miserable place like this.
“There’s been sleepless nights,’’ Callaway tells USA TODAY Sports. “It’s not that I’m worrying about myself, but when you see these guys working so hard, and when the results don’t come, you can’t help but think about that. You lay in bed at night and say, “OK, what am I going to say to this guy? What am I going to say to that guy? Do you leave him alone? Do you let him work through it?”
So never toss and turn in bed second-guessing yourself over moves?
“No,’’ Callaway says, “I get second-guessed enough.’’
Welcome to life in New York, where not every first-year manager like Aaron Boone inherits the Yankees. Or in Boston, where Alex Cora is handed a team that won the AL East the past two years and given a welcome package in J.D. Martinez. Or in Washington where Dave Martinez takes over a franchise with Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer gunning for three consecutive NL East titles.
These are the Mets, a team that was playing in the World Series just three years ago, earned a wild-card spot two years ago, but are now just a shell of themselves.
They opened the season winning 11 of their first 12 games, and have since played the worst baseball in the National League, losing 29 of their last 42. They went from 10 games above .500 to 10 games below .500 in the quickest time in major-league history, finally pulling off back-to-back victories over the weekend for the first time in a month.
Yoenis Cespedes, the man designed to be the centerpiece of the offense, hasn’t played a game since May 14 with a hip flexor injury. The Mets have no idea when they’ll see him again. Jay Bruce, their biggest free-agent acquisition during the winter, is hitting .212 with three homers – none since May 7. Their bullpen, with closer Jeurys Familia activated Sunday, has lost a major-league leading 18 games, yielding a 6.42 ERA in the last 22 games.
And all you need to know about their offensive ineptitude is that ace Jacob deGrom is yielding a 0.87 ERA in his last 10 starts since April 21, and the Mets are 2-8 in those games.
They’ve tried clubhouse meetings. Closed-door meetings. They even had meetings with their position players at first base, second base and third base one afternoon in Phoenix.
They’ve had promotions. Demotions. Mid-season veteran pickups (Jose Bautista). Mid-season veteran dumps (Adrian Gonzalez).
It has made little difference, and just like Terry Collins before him, and Jerry Manuel before that, and even back to the days of Willie Randolph and Art Howe, Callaway finds himself as the human piñata for the Mets’ woes.
Sure, there have been mistakes, just like with any other rookie manager. There was the infamous lineup card snafu, one that Callaway says he still thinks about every single game. The scarcity of double-switches, with relievers already having 21 at-bats. The questionable moves. The 7-14 record in one-run games.
Yet, there’s not a manager in the game who would wish the Mets’ offense on their worst enemy. They’re hitting .217 since May 1, tying a franchise record in futility with three or fewer runs in 11 consecutive games, and have had 72 more strikeouts than hits this season.
“Everything is hunky-dory when you’re 11-1,’’ Callaway says, “but the down cycle is where you really start to see who people are. This is tough. I understand they didn’t have the greatest go of it last year, but they didn’t have a stretch like this.
“But you learn from challenges like these. Our team will get to know each other a lot sooner than we would have otherwiseI don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s the way I feel about it.’’
Well, little makes sense these days for the Mets, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Who needs the marketing department to throw an Old-Timers’ Day when they can stage their own version every day of the week.
In a time when the Mets’ fan base is clamoring to send 35-year-old Jose Reyes out to pasture, and wondering why they bothered to pick up 37-year-old Bautista in the first place, leave it to the aging duo to trigger the Mets’ four-run, ninth-inning, 5-3 comeback Sunday over the Diamondbacks in their biggest victory of the season.
“Really,” Callaway insists, “we need those guys.’’
It’s hardly the ideal blueprint for a baseball franchise, but considering what the Mets are enduring these days, they can’t worry about style points. They’re in desperate need of victories to prevent any temptation by ownership for a tear-down.
Yet, this is New York. When the Mets are in a free-fall, folks want immediate action, whether it’s dumping starters Noah Syndergaard and deGrom for prospects, releasing Reyes and Bautista, or simply firing Callaway three months into his three-year contract.
“The reality is that when things are going bad in a market like this,’’ says Callaway, who was named after Yankees icon Mickey Mantle, “things are highlighted more. You just have to overcome it. And I’m confident we will.”
Callaway pauses, breaks into a grin, and just as he slowly gets up from his chair, says:
“And believe me, I’m learning a lot right now.’’