LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.
Terry Francona, the gold standard for managers of this era, could have used any number of words Wednesday to describe his friend and former Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, now two months into his tenure with the Mets.
Great guy. Loyal sidekick. Smart baseball man.
But “Tito” didn’t choose any of those platitudes. Francona’s assessment of Callaway?
High praise from the manager who won two World Series rings with the Red Sox and helped them finally break the 86-year Curse of the Bambino in 2004. Despite attaining legendary status in Beantown, Francona’s eventual reward was public shaming and the bum’s rush out of town after the 2011 “chicken and beer” Red Sox collapsed down the stretch.
As further testament to his greatness, however, Francona quickly resurrected his career in Cleveland, and it was no small coincidence that Callaway was by his side for the Indians’ revival. For all the emphasis on Callaway’s data-fueled acumen and deft pitching touch, what he gleaned from the battle-hardened Francona feels like the part that’s been getting undersold in discussing the Mets’ 21st manager.
Some of that probably has to do with Callaway’s “Summer of Love” introduction at Citi Field on Oct. 23, when he repeatedly gushed about “caring” for the players, an honest message but one that felt maybe a bit too touchy-feely after a 92-loss season. We can’t blame the Mets’ disgruntled fan base for craving more of a disciplinarian right off the bat, and Callaway — no doubt eager to make a great first impression — floored the pedal on positivity.
It’s gotten to the point where the Mets’ former radio home now plays “Kumbaya” leading into Callaway’s sound bites, and without any on-field managing to do for a while, it’s going to take him some time to display the harder edge he’d like to. We should remember that Callaway is still a rookie at this. New York’s insatiable media demands can require an adjustment process, and that includes fine-tuning your public persona in addition to mastering the baseball responsibilities.
Callaway deserves credit from the jump for recognizing this, and if there’s anything that needs to be corrected, he’s not shy about addressing the issue. During Wednesday’s media luncheon at the winter meetings, a casual sit-down with reporters, Callaway wanted to clarify that his goal of connecting with players shouldn’t be misconstrued as being soft with them. Duly noted. And just to make sure there was a corroborating witness, I asked Francona if he had seen that stricter side of Callaway during their time together in Cleveland.
“We all get competitive during a game, but I don’t think that ever makes you quit caring about players,” Francona said. “Sometimes you have to deliver a tough message. He can do that. That doesn’t mean you don’t care. I think that’s why you do it.
“I think Mickey’s a star . . . He’s going to be terrific at whatever he does.”
You can’t blame Callaway for getting caught up in the “clubhouse therapist” trend that was featured in nearly all of the managerial searches this offseason. Just about everything he said was echoed by Alex Cora in Boston and Aaron Boone across town with the Yankees as front offices made it clear they wanted someone to supercharge the confidence of their young talent, not sabotage it. In addition to a strong analytics background, that level of positive-vibe communication was prioritized, and those two qualities were stressed by the new managers.
We admit, at times it felt over the top. But five of the six hires are rookies — the Tigers’ Ron Gardenhire being the exception — so there’s a feeling-out process involved. With Callaway, he’s got the rock-solid baseball resume, and already shown the ability to cultivate one of the sport’s best pitching staffs. He also seems at ease in the spotlight, even if it’s considerably dimmer during the offseason. Francona described this as the “honeymoon phase” for his buddy, who certainly sounds like he’ll be as fired up as his players.
“I get up real early and drink tons of coffee,” Callaway said. “So I don’t think I’m going to burn out unless I have a heart attack or something, like Tito.”
Callaway doesn’t have to follow his mentor’s example quite that closely.