With too many thoughts to express, too many thanks to give, too many people to shout out on a hectic day, Carlos Mendoza settled for several Tuesday afternoon.
At the news conference introducing him as the Mets’ manager, a new climax in his baseball life, Mendoza acknowledged the reality of every person in his position. He is here in part because of those who helped him along the way, those who took an interest in a longtime minor-leaguer or a young instructor or a bench coach on the cusp of the big job. He is the product of those who offered wisdom through the years, up to and including this month.
“There's a lot of people that I want to acknowledge,” he said. “But we could be here for a long, long time.”
Mendoza’s time was limited, especially on the first day. His mentors, though, were more than happy to lend theirs.
In interviews with Newsday, Phillies manager Rob Thomson, recently retired Astros manager Dusty Baker and longtime Yankees player development coach/executive Pat McMahon — all highlighted by Mendoza as major professional influences — spoke glowingly of him, detailed their connection with him and offered why they think he’ll do well in this role.
Rob Thomson’s mutual mentorship
The Mets’ future duels with the Phillies, their closest geographic divisional rival, will come with a twist: They’ll be meetings of mentor versus mentee — or mentor versus mentor, in the view of Thomson.
“From the moment I met him, I knew he was a good coach,” Thomson said. “I gravitated to him because of his organization and how detailed he was in every endeavor that we asked him to do. When you’re talking about mentorship, I always think about mentorship as a two-way street. I learned a lot more from Carlos than Carlos probably even understands.”
Citing Thompson as “the biggest” influence on his managerial style, Mendoza said: “I remember my first year as a minor-league coach coming up to big-league camp and how much he cared about relationships, about my family, who I was as a person as opposed to a coach. And then the way he communicated with the players. This is a guy that I see as a mentor.”
Thomson and Mendoza overlapped in the Yankees' organization for about a decade. When Thomson departed after the 2017 season, Mendoza took over one of his signature roles: running spring training.
During their years together, Thomson was struck by Mendoza’s mindfulness of specifics and ability to teach infield play, from crafting more efficient drills to knowing — and communicating — exactly how to position the defenders and why.
In Mendoza, Thomson hears echoes of his own track from the minors to the majors to, finally, getting a chance to run a dugout. These days, that is something of an old-fashioned approach.
Long overlooked for such opportunities, Thomson intended for 2022 to be his last season before the Phillies promoted him from bench coach to manager that June. They have been to the NLCS both Octobers since.
Now he and Mendoza will compete against each other in the NL East.
“It’ll be great,” Thomson said. “Maybe because this is how I went through my life, my career — I love seeing guys who have paid their dues in the minor league or on a big-league bench who finally get a chance, get an opportunity to manage a club. It’s refreshing.”
Dusty Baker’s window to the heart
Around the turn of the century, Mendoza’s first exposure to a major-league manager came when the Giants invited him — a mere minor-leaguer whose playing career peaked with several games at Triple-A — to spring training. Their boss at the time: Baker, then in the first of five managing stops spanning 26 seasons.
What made an impression on Mendoza was, he said, “the way he set up expectations from day one.” Despite his relative insignificance to the big-league club, they developed what he called “a really good relationship.”
What made an impression on Baker was, apparently, Mendoza’s face.
“He was always attentive. He had a bright, attentive face,” Baker said, calling Mendoza by his Giants-era nickname, “Spider.” “I remember [late college football coaching great] Bo Schembechler. When I first started this, he told me it’s in the face. You can sort of see into his heart through his face. [Mendoza] was always paying attention. Worked hard, paid attention, never talked too much, but you can tell he was paying attention.”
When Baker looked at Mendoza’s face, what did he see in his heart?
“I saw a bright young man that was a good guy,” Baker said. “But I also saw the competitor in him at the same time.”
Their paths diverged after the 2002 season, when Baker left the Giants after punctuating his decade-long run with a National League pennant. Mendoza played one more season in San Francisco’s farm system, stuck it out in an independent league for a couple of years and caught on with the Yankees.
When they crossed paths again in 2021, Baker — by then with the Astros — was surprised to stumble upon Mendoza, who was Aaron Boone’s bench coach. As fierce as the Yankees-Astros rivalry has been in recent years, Mendoza said he and Baker “had a lot of conversations” that proved educational during their teams’ series.
“I didn’t know how old Spider was. He hadn’t gained any weight other than man muscles,” Baker said. “When I first saw him, I thought he was an infield coach because that is what he was best at. I found out he was the bench coach and said, 'Good luck.' I told him, 'You have a good chance to be a manager.' He said, 'Well, we’ll see.' Then when I saw he was hired, I was like, Carlos Mendoza from the Yankees? That’s Spider.”
Baker was one of the first to make a congratulatory call. They talked about certain coaches, how Mendoza’s sons will grow up at the ballpark the way Baker’s did, about not forgetting about the human element embedded in the game.
“Use the things that surround you, the metrics,” Baker said. “But don’t forget your feelings in the meantime, because sometimes you feel things. And most of the time you’ll be right.
“He inherited a good team and a tough job. It helps that he’s just moving across town. And they got a good, honest, intelligent guy. That was a great hire, not only for him but for the Mets as well.”
Pat McMahon’s lessons for the majors
Around the time Mendoza transitioned from playing to coaching, he met McMahon, then and now a figure in Yankees player development and a beloved staple of spring training. Mendoza said he came to view McMahon as “my second dad.”
Among their early conversations: Eventually, for every ballplayer, the end comes. They can’t play anymore. That time was nearing for Mendoza, approaching 30 and toiling in the minors.
“But there are other ways to involve yourself in the game and the love of the game,” McMahon, a longtime college coach, told him. He offered a soft warning that coaching, which required arriving early and staying late, could be even more of a grind than playing.
The choice of becoming a coach for his second act was a natural one — and Mendoza, indeed, was a natural at it.
McMahon describing Mendoza the brand-new coach sounded a lot like others describing Mendoza the newly minted manager. He had great attention for detail and an appreciation for the game’s fundamentals, was always prepared and made clear to each player that he cared about him. He treated everybody — from players and fellow coaches to the grounds crew and cafeteria workers at the Yankees’ academy in the Dominican Republic — with the same amount of respect.
Mendoza’s professional journey, from international signee to never making the majors as a player to a steady climb as a coach and someone with a background in player development, gives him a deep appreciation for what is required to make it to the brightest stage — and stay there.
“He understands that growth and that long-haul plan,” McMahon said. “That to me is a strong asset, to know where players come from. That is a tremendous asset for him.”
As Mendoza became a hot manager prospect in recent years, talking to at least seven teams before the Mets hired him, McMahon remained a sounding board and valued voice.
“When he interviewed with the New York Mets, it was something a little beyond, a little more special,” McMahon said. “Special in the sense of the challenges of managing the New York Mets. There was a little bit of a change in tone, a little bit of a stronger, higher interest.”
Through the years, he added, they developed a motto, oft repeated to each other and themselves as a reminder: “The quest as a coach is to always keep teaching and always keep coaching.” The job is never done.
“Not just the game of baseball, but all phases,” McMahon said. “That’s a neat challenge for all of us. That to me is Carlos Mendoza.”