In the past, the biggest decisions made by managers involved strategy. With the proliferation of statistical analysis, in-game decisions have become more uniform, and the manager’s focus has shifted.
“You’re really not going to get a manager that is a ton better than another because everybody is getting the same information and it’s so accessible,” Callaway said one morning before the start of spring training at his oceanfront home in Santa Rosa Beach, on the Florida Panhandle. “So what is going to set your team apart?”
To answer, he pointed to the mentor he worked under as a pitching coach for five years, Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians, who is considered one of the best managers in baseball for his ability to blend numbers with a deft handling of players and the news media.
“You get a guy like Tito who can communicate great, keep players playing hard and create the right culture so you get the maximum out of your players,” Callaway said, referring to Francona by his nickname. “That’s the edge people are looking for.”
Nowadays, managers face clubhouses full of players with diverse backgrounds and salaries that dwarf their own. Emboldened players challenge them more and talk directly to owners. Sports reporting can be almost instantaneous. Managers collaborate with more employees, from doctors to statistical analysts.
“You’re representing the organization as the frontman,” said the Colorado Rockies’ manager, Bud Black, who has been a major league pitcher, a coach and a front office assistant. “You have to be so well versed and wear many hats and have the ability to cross over so many cross-sections of an organization to be effective.”
In their previous manager, Terry Collins, the Mets had a fiery baseball lifer for seven seasons who took the team from losing to, at his peak, the 2015 World Series, but whose relationship with the front office and players became strained.
In Callaway, Alderson saw a creative and open-minded person who embraced data, and not simply because his bosses wanted him to. During Callaway’s job interview, Alderson said, game strategy was not discussed much. Alderson said he cared more about how Callaway carried himself and arrived at his decisions.
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“Mickey wants input,” Alderson said. “He wants it from the front office and his coaches. In our case, we’re looking for an opportunity to influence the decision-making. Not to direct it, but to provide whatever we can to support the manager.”
It will be up to Callaway, of course, to contend with the Wilpons, the Mets’ ever-present owners, and Alderson’s front office, influences which, at times, were challenging for past managers to deal with.
Callaway arrived at the Mets after a winding career that spanned continents. A Memphis native, he left the University of Mississippi to sign with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a seventh-round pick in 1996. He pitched in parts of five major league seasons with three teams.
But ineffectiveness on the mound and injuries forced him to pitch in professional baseball leagues in Korea and Taiwan and independent baseball in Texas. His wife, Anna, and later their daughters, Catherine and Madeline, traveled with him. Needing a place to rehabilitate after Tommy John surgery, he served as the interim head baseball coach at Texas A&M International University in 2008 with no previous experience.
“I was a pretty good self-evaluator as a player, which was probably bad in my case because I wasn’t very good,” he said. “It made me realize that I would make a better coach.”
When he became a coach, Callaway had much to draw on. He grew up in baseball’s budding information age. With the Devil Rays, he learned from star players like Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs. With the Anaheim Angels during their World Series-winning 2002 season, Callaway absorbed game strategy from Mike Scioscia, one of baseball’s top managers. With the Texas Rangers, Callaway learned about preparation from Buck Showalter, also among baseball’s best.
The biggest influences on Callaway, though, were the Indians and Francona. In 2010, they hired him as the pitching coach at their Class A affiliate in Eastlake, Ohio. He was promoted each year until becoming the major league pitching coach in 2013.
In Callaway’s five seasons leading the Indians pitchers, they posted a 3.65 earned run average, fourth best in baseball. They reached the playoffs three times, including the 2016 World Series. They set a major league record with 1,614 strikeouts in 2017.