When there started to be whispers about a month ago that Mickey Callaway’s job might be in jeopardy, I argued that it didn’t make much sense to fire him at that point in time. The basis of my argument was that there were really only a few circumstances in which firing a manager in the middle of the season made much sense, in the absence of which the change would be little more than a distraction from the bigger problems facing the organization. One of the circumstances in which I acknowledged a team would be justified in a mid-season firing would be if the manager has lost the clubhouse to the point where his continued presence becomes an unnecessary burden and distraction, which at the time did not seem to be the case with Callaway.
The Mets’ fortunes have not gotten much better in the intervening month, but if it was simply a matter of the team performing poorly on the field then the front office could continue to be justified in keeping their beleaguered manager around before quietly parting ways with him at the end of the season. And yet in watching his handling of the difficulties surrounding the team during that time, one could not help but get a sense that he felt overwhelmed at the task of keeping a handle of his players and justifying his often bewildering strategies to the media.
These frustrations reached a boiling point on Sunday when he cursed out a member of the media and allowed one of his players to threaten said beat reporter. The team has struggled to manage this PR nightmare since then. Jeff Wilpon, paragon of professionalism that he is, reached out to the reporter to offer his apologies on behalf of the organization, but Callaway himself danced around a direct apology when given multiple opportunities to provide one in his initial address to the media on Monday afternoon. He subsequently had to call reporters back in to clarify that he was, in fact, sorry for the incident.
For now, the team’s discipline of Callaway has been limited to a $10,000 fine—Jason Vargas, the player who threatened the reporter, was fined the same amount—and a brief statement expressing disappointment over the matter. But the front office is foolish to think that this minor action is enough to make this controversy go away. Callaway’s inconsistent in-game management has already made him an incredibly frustrating manager to watch, but more serious than that is his continued inability to portray himself as the steady hand guiding this ship. That issue reached its apex on Sunday, but the signs were there before then. While misguided in-game decisions can ultimately be forgiven, continued incompetence at managing the clubhouse and the media cannot be. With that in mind, Callaway has now given the Mets the justification they needed to remove him from his post and install a new manager to finish out the 2019 season.
While it would be unfair to accuse Callaway of having “lost the clubhouse” in the sense of his players losing faith in him—there hasn’t been much evidence to suggest that that’s been the case—we can point to a number of blunders on his part to surmise that he might not have as solid a handle on the status of his players as he ideally should. There have been numerous instances over the past few weeks when Callaway’s statements to the media have subsequently been directly contradicted by either the team’s actions or the comments of his players.
One second, for instance, he’s arguing that the team is not frustrated by their struggles, and the next second Jacob deGrom is saying the exact opposite. He insisted that Jeurys Familia was perfectly fine and that they were continuing to closely monitor his health, only for the struggling relief pitcher to be placed on the IL shortly after those comments were made. Right before his outburst on Saturday, he argued that he was justified in leaving Seth Lugo in the game because he had good stuff that day, only for Lugo to subsequently say that he did not. On their own, any one of these incidents could be forgiven as a slightly embarrassing but ultimately harmless misstep. When they all happen in such a short period of time from one another, however, they form the impression of a manager whose communication with his players and the larger team personnel is lacking, one who does not have his feel on the pulse of his ball club.
Callaway had nevertheless mostly avoided getting outright aggressive with anybody before his actions on Sunday—first in getting snippy when a reporter challenged him on his refusal to use Diaz for more than three outs and then in his subsequent outburst. One can certainly forgive him for being frustrated in the aftermath of another incredibly demoralizing loss, given the team’s overall state of affairs and the precarious nature of his job stability. But the very nature of his role requires him to remain even-keeled even in the team’s lowest moments, lest he attract an even greater amount of negative attention to the organization.
For all of Terry Collins’s faults as a manager, he was widely respected around the league in part because he never lashed out at the media over their criticisms of his or his players’ performances—and there were certainly plenty of moments when he would have been justified in feeling just as frustrated as Callaway was on Sunday. The fact that the latter manager could not keep his emotions in check and allowed himself to create unnecessary drama for an organization that most certainly does not need any more of that does not speak well of his ability to provide the leadership that someone in his role should ideally provide for his team.
The argument for letting Callaway go now extends beyond this one incident, though. The concern is also over the fact that there is still half a season of baseball remaining, and there are bound to be more challenging moments to come. We’ve already seen Callaway struggle to defend his poor decisions and adequately communicate the feelings of his players. Now we’ve also seen his underlying frustrations come exploding to the surface, and the potential for additional incidents like this one cannot be ignored. Perhaps if he had been immediately been contrite and demonstrated a willingness to learn and atone for his mistakes here, it would be easier to justify having faith in him to avoid any additional debacles this year.
But his reluctance to directly acknowledge any wrongdoing on his part does not speak well for his capacity for self-improvement in the wake of this episode, and that means that keeping him around would only have the potential to draw even more scrutiny and embarrassment to the team than that which already exists. Allowing that dark cloud to hang over the team’s head—particularly when the end result will still be the same, as even if Callaway did make it to the end of the season, it would be incredibly difficult to imagine him keeping his job beyond then—seems like a pointless endeavor.
Firing a manager in the middle of the season is usually meant to convey that the front office takes the struggles of its team seriously, but more often than not it just highlights the dysfunction that exists behind the scenes without offering any tangible paths for improvement. And indeed, nobody should expect the Mets to suddenly become a better baseball team just because they let Jim Riggleman or somebody else take control for the next three months. The Wilpons will still be a continuing cloud of misery, and the next manager may not even be the one to truly make the tough decisions if recent reports are any indication.
But “first do no harm” seems like the bare minimum of what we should expect from someone in Callaway’s position. Even if he will make decisions that will make us want to pull our hair out, he should at least be able to lead the team and speak to the media in a way which does not bring embarrassment and negative attention to the franchise. Callaway can no longer credibly claim that he is capable of fulfilling even that basic requirement, and thus it is time for him to go.