Before he became a pitching guru for the Indians, before he studied at the side of manager Terry Francona, before he convinced a room of strangers in the nation’s biggest baseball town that he was the only man for the job of mending a fractured clubhouse, Mickey Callaway was just another pitcher hanging on to a dream.
Back in January 2008, his only concern was recovering from Tommy John surgery. The calendar wasn’t cooperating. Most everyone he knew from his time in professional baseball soon would be off to spring training, leaving him without rehab partners. To continue on his path, he had to get creative.
So Callaway went to Google and typed in the following: college pitching coach positions. Within days of that search, he’d pack his family into his truck and drive 900 miles from his home in Memphis, Tennessee, to the border town of Laredo, Texas. There, he’d find Texas A&M International University and its fledgling baseball program. He agreed to become interim head coach for one season. He had no previous experience.
Callaway couldn’t have known it at the time, but he had just taken his first step in the nearly decade-long journey that led him to a news conference room at Citi Field, where he was introduced last week as the newest manager of the Mets.
“Right away, just leading that group of young people, I knew that this is what I wanted to do,” Callaway said as he recalled when he realized that coaching would be his true calling.
In January of 1914, long before he’d become a manager, Casey Stengel was a player with a sore shoulder in need of healing. That winter, he traveled to Oxford, where he’d get a taste of coaching, assisting his former high school coach, who had taken the same position at Ole Miss. The time served Stengel well. He returned to Brooklyn in good health and with a nickname that would stick: Professor.
By the time Callaway arrived at Texas A&M International, he already was nearing the end of a 14-year career that took him from St. Petersburg to Seoul, South Korea, from Tennessee to Taiwan.
He played college ball at Ole Miss, where he was good enough to get drafted in the seventh round by the Devil Rays in 1996. He reached the big leagues with the Rays, Angels and Rangers, stringing together 40 appearances over parts of five seasons. He finished with a 6.27 ERA, last appearing in the majors in 2004.
Three seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization came next, followed by elbow surgery that left him scrounging for throwing partners. Callaway found them in Laredo, Texas, where players from a fledgling small college program were desperate for a new voice.
“We were excited that we could be coached and that we could learn from a big-leaguer,” said Ryan Flynn, then an infielder at TAMIU, which began fielding a team only the year before.
The previous head coach stepped down at season’s end. His planned successor did not connect with the players, who soon lobbied the athletic department for a replacement.
Meanwhile, at his home in Memphis, Callaway found that the only result from his Internet search was not for a pitching coach but for a head coach at Texas A&M International University. He’d never heard of it. He called anyway. The job had not been filled.
Then he’d catch another break. Callaway tracked down the athletic director, who happened to be at a conference in Nashville, just a few hours away from his home.
“I gave her my whole spiel,” said Callaway, who drove to meet her in person. “I said, ‘I see you’re looking for somebody. Have you hired anybody? Would you consider having an interim guy come in for the season? I see you don’t have anybody.’ It was two weeks away from the season.”
This would not be the first time he’d win over a stranger. Two days later, Callaway and his family were rumbling over the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, headed to a place he’d never been to prolong a fading playing career that soon would give way to something much more fulfilling.
The father grew up a Yankees fan. One of his sons would be named Mickey, after Mantle. The other son would be named Casey, after Stengel, who long after his playing days went on to his greatest fame as manager of the Yankees. Of course, Stengel attained something else entirely when he became the first to manage the Mets. Mickey Callaway is now the latest.
It wouldn’t be long before it became hard to figure out who was getting the better end of the bargain — the players or the coach.
“We just learned the game a lot through the big-league way and the philosophy of doing things the right way, putting in the extra work, getting in the cages when no one’s looking,” Flynn said. “We weren’t really sure what that meant until Mickey came down here.”
Meanwhile, the first-time coach found himself invigorated by a group of players so hungry to improve that they asked for more work. He trusted the players to set their expectations.
“These guys were coming to me and saying, ‘Hey Coach, make us get up early on Wednesday mornings, at 5:30 in the morning to make us lift, to bring us together,’ ” Callaway said. “When I saw that, when they were talking to me about that, I was like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ These kids want to play, they want to work, they want to be guided. And it really got me excited.”
The program’s previous coach cast himself in the mold of the classic disciplinarian. He was strict. Callaway took the opposite approach, hitting on some of the themes he mentioned upon being hired by the Mets. His interest in his players extended beyond the white lines.
“It’s hearing your guys out,” Flynn said. “All guys have different kinds of problems on the field, off the field, in the classroom, with their families, even with their girlfriends. You’ve got hear them out, be there when they need you.”
Still rehabbing his arm, Callaway used time after practices to do his own throwing, preparing himself to resume his playing career. Catching duties often fell to the backup, Mike Mainhart, who got an education on what he called the “intricacies” of receiving pitches behind the plate. Sometimes players remained to give the coach live batters to face.
“That brought the little kid out in him,” Flynn said.
Facing a tougher schedule, moving up to Division II and playing conference games for the first time, the Dustdevils endured growing pains. They finished the 2008 season 19-37. The record didn’t dim Callaway’s enthusiasm, though.
“He’s raw in his emotions,” Mainhart said. “You could see it in the way he defended his players. He wasn’t afraid to go out there and argue a call, either. You could see the passion there. You could see the way he pumped you up before games, the way he’d prepare you in practice.”
At season’s end, with his tenure as interim coach concluded, Callaway was healthy enough to pitch for the local independent league team. It was his last stop before heading to Taiwan for one more year of pitching.
But back in Laredo, something changed.
Said Callaway: “It was hard to concentrate on playing after feeling that I was ready to start coaching.”
During his introduction last week, Mickey Callaway sought to make a connection. He recalled how his brother had been named after Casey Stengel, the first manager of the then-fledgling Mets. He relayed the old story about Stengel at Ole Miss, where he had once pitched. He noted how he, too, had once healed himself by going back to campus.
Both Flynn and Mainhart watched from afar on Monday afternoon as Callaway smiled for the cameras and slipped on his No. 36 Mets jersey for the first time. What they heard sounded familiar.
“When I watched that press conference, just hearing his giggle and his chuckle and hearing his voice, it seems like it was just yesterday,” said Flynn, who used Callaway as a reference a few years back when he landed the job as head baseball coach of Texas A&M International University.
Callaway spoke of being involved in his players’ lives, of being a steadying influence, of how his first order of business would be reaching out to every man on the roster. It’s precisely what he had done years ago when he first arrived on campus.
“He never wanted to push us around and think he knew everything,” Flynn said. “He heard us out. That goes a long way.”
At 42, Callaway is one of the youngest managers in the majors, and it showed. As he fielded questions about how he would turn around the Mets, he answered with boundless energy. He spoke of loving his players as well as pushing them. Often, he laughed.
“It was that same type of excitement that I think you saw in that press conference . . . just the way his eyes lit up and how genuinely pumped he was to take this job,” Mainhart said. “That was kind of the way he was on the field.”
The lessons from Laredo paid off for Callaway, who stopped playing and joined the Indians as a minor-league coach in 2010. It was the beginning of a rapid ascent. By 2013, he was the big-league pitching coach.
Soon he’d bolster his reputation for connecting with players by helping Corey Kluber turn himself from afterthought to Cy Young Award winner. All of it came under the tutelage of Francona, whose own managerial career might end with a place in Cooperstown.
“Mickey, watching him do his press conference and the way he handled himself, he’s ready,” Francona said in a conference call last week. “He’s going to be terrific. Nobody has a crystal ball and knows what their record is going to be, but he is so ready for the challenges that will come with that job. He’s going to bring enthusiasm and passion for that job, and he’ll do terrific.”