SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When president of baseball operations David Stearns and the Mets had whittled their field of eight managerial candidates to less than half that, the final few, he learned of the shocking decision from the one he knew best.
Craig Counsell, Stearns’ manager for all of his seven seasons in charge of the Brewers, called to tell his former boss that he would not join him with the Mets, Stearns shared Tuesday. But he wasn’t going to stay in Milwaukee, either. Instead, he decided on the Cubs, who offered him a five-year, $40 million contract to relocate 90 miles south.
Clarity on Counsell allowed the Mets to make their own decision, hiring Yankees bench coach Carlos Mendoza. Stearns declined to discuss that move because the team had not yet made it official.
But Counsell? Leaving his hometown to join a division rival?
“I didn’t see that coming,” Stearns said. “I love Craig. Craig and I are going to be close hopefully for a long time. I think he’s very good at what he does and throughout this whole process, what I told Craig was he needs to make the right choice for himself — for him and his family — for what really fires him up and gets him going. And I’m happy that he did.”
As they discussed reuniting, Stearns did not get a sense of whether Counsell actually was open to moving east and working in New York, he said.
That always was the major variable with the perceived favorite. Money wouldn’t be an issue for Steve Cohen’s team. Nor would, in theory, the chance to win.
But it was not clear if Counsell really wanted the Mets.
“Craig can play things pretty close to the vest,” Stearns said. “In this case, clearly he played it very close to the vest, because none of us had any idea of where this was headed. And so the truth was, I never really knew. And ultimately he’s a really smart guy, he factored in all the information and he made the right decision for himself.”
Stearns described the Mets’ manager search as “robust.” Of the eight candidates he talked to, five or six had more formal video interviews with a larger group of Mets people, he said. Four came to New York for a round of in-person chats. A smaller number — Stearns declined to specify — met with Cohen.
Assisting throughout was longtime Mets executive John Ricco, one of Stearns’ bosses when he was an intern in 2007. Ricco has largely moved away from the baseball side of the organization in recent years.
That “energizing” process, as Stearns described it, was his first time hiring a manager. He inherited Counsell in Milwaukee and never made a change.
“All four of the people at that (in-person) stage were exceptionally qualified and I really enjoyed all of those,” he said.
They landed on Mendoza, who spent more than a decade playing in the minors and close to a decade coaching in the minors before the Yankees promoted him to the major-league staff prior to the 2018 season. He spent four years as Boone’s righthand man.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, dubbing himself “a Mendy fan,” said he had heard from teams who interviewed Mendoza (but did not hire him) in recent years that they were surprised nobody had hired him yet.
He called Mendoza “a tough loss.”
“The Mets got a great one,” Cashman said. “He’s got structure, he’s got process, he knows the game’s fundamentals, he’s been running our major-league spring training for years . . . He knows analytics inside-out. He’s got discipline. He’s not afraid to go at a player when necessary and when it’s required. He’s got a soft touch, too, at the same time. He’s a Swiss Army knife The Mets got a really great baseball person. We lost an asset that we’re now going to have to replace.
“I thought that there was going to be a job for him already. This was one that was meant to be.”