As Mickey Callaway discovered in the course of a troubled two-year tenure that officially ended Thursday, being the manager of the Mets is a very difficult job. I’d go as far as to suggest it’s the toughest in baseball.
Not just because of the relentless, unblinking New York spotlight, or the draining media demands, or the on-field pressures of in-game decisions.
The Yankees have all that, too.
But here’s where life in Flushing gets tricky: No other club is run by a former agent turned general manager like Brodie Van Wagenen, who is very much still in the development stage by front-office standards. And above Van Wagenen stand the Wilpons, a father-son ownership tandem that doesn’t always agree and is closely involved with the day-to-day baseball operations of the team, from roster discussions to postgame debriefings in the manager’s office, often before that night’s media wrap-up.
Van Wagenen wasn’t shy about spending time in the Mets’ clubhouse during his rookie season — a practice that GMs typically avoid — and it’s not unusual for the Wilpons, both Fred and Jeff, to be visible, vocal presences around the team, whether it be taking in batting practice or closed-door meetings with uniformed personnel.
Now that Van Wagenen and the Wilpons are emboldened by an 86-win season and an intoxicating brush with contention, the Mets badly need an established, confident hand at the wheel. No first-year projects, no leaps-of-faith, no growing into the job.
Nobody has the patience for that, and the GM basically spelled it out during Thursday’s conference call with reporters.
“Mickey helped us get to this point,” Van Wagenen said. “I think he helped us start this progression. And I think we got better year after year with him. At the end of the day, our goals right now are to accelerate our progress, and we don’t want to take our foot off the pedal here.
“We want to keep going forward in aggressive fashion and to get over the hump as fast as possible.”
Callaway was basically road kill. The clock on him was ticking since Van Wagenen’s hiring in November, and when the first half went sideways, nothing short of a playoff berth had any chance of saving this manager.
The task was too big for Callaway, on a number of fronts. Anyone who observed the Mets on a regular basis could see that. So when the front office went into radio silence in the final weeks of the season, it became merely a formality when Van Wagenen and Jeff Wilpon flew to Florida to fire Callaway face-to-face Thursday morning.
When he took the GM gig, Van Wagenen had a ready-made fall guy in Callaway. Now the Mets need a legit dugout leader, a proven tactician and someone who can navigate the media responsibilities without a team official tightly squeezing his hand.
That’s a very short list of candidates, and if we were to rank them, Joe Girardi would be at the top, followed by Buck Showalter — the presumption being that Joe Maddon is headed to the Angels. While there are some promising first-timers out there, notably Astros bench coach Joe Espada, former Met (now Yankees adviser) Carlos Beltran and even Van Wagenen’s own quality-control coach, Luis Rojas, Citi Field isn’t the right place for them at this current time.
That’s not a knock on them. It’s about needing a particular set of skills to not only navigate the Flushing minefield but feel comfortable performing amid the noise of the occasional explosion.
Girardi earned Manager of the Year honors during his dysfunctional stay with the Marlins and went on to win a World Series for the Yankees before his decade-long run ended with an ALCS Game 7 loss in 2017.
Girardi isn’t the media darling that Showalter can be, but the key quality for both is their ability to handle the twice-a-day reporter sessions in a professional, accountable manner. That looks much easier from the outside. Trust us on that. Even the best occasionally bristle under such withering exposure, and it can’t be simulated during the job-interview process.
The same goes for real-time game management. We saw what happened with Callaway. The former Indians pitching coach spent five years alongside the brilliant Terry Francona in Cleveland, yet in two years, he never got adept at consistently pushing the right buttons in the National League.
The Mets’ next manager has to have done this before. He can’t be a projected high-ceiling candidate who could be great at it someday soon. That manager also has to be strong enough to be respected as the baseball person in the room, not a puppet. We know that’s becoming more of a rarity these days, but it’s absolutely necessary with what tends to be a self-sabotaging chain of command at 41 Seaver Way.
Hiring a manager is easy. Getting one who can succeed in Flushing is the hard part.