At the tail end of the 2002 baseball season, when the Mets were weighing whether to fire Bobby Valentine, the team owner, Fred Wilpon, told Valentine to manage the last week of the season as if it were the World Series. It was a test to see if, after a season of losing and despair, Valentine still had it in him to ignite the team for one last push.
If he were to be judged on the final week, Valentine wanted the team to promote Jose Reyes from Class AA — even at 19, Reyes was the organization’s most dynamic player. Reyes stayed put, the Mets finished 1-6 for the week, and Valentine was fired.
He probably would have been gone anyway, but the final week might have made Wilpon’s decision easier.
Seventeen years later the Mets have a similar decision to make about Mickey Callaway, their current manager, and this one could come down to the final week, too. Callaway’s fate lies in the hands of Fred Wilpon, his son Jeff and Brodie Van Wagenen, the general manager, each of whom has been evaluating Callaway’s performance all year.
Many fans would vote for Callaway to go. In June and July that seemed the obvious conclusion, anyway. Van Wagenen, who predicted good things when he took over as G.M. in the off-season, inherited Callaway from the previous administration and watched as the team fell 11 games under .500 in the middle of July.
There was also Callaway’s strange confrontation with a reporter in Chicago in June, and there were some questionable moves on the field. Many of them seemed to underscore the perception of Callaway as an American League pitching coach stumbling as a manager in the tactically more complicated National League.
There is a laundry list of reasons for Van Wagenen and the Wilpons to pick a new manager, especially if they spy a replacement — perhaps a proven veteran like Joe Girardi, who in his time as the Yankees manager developed a reputation for being thoroughly prepared for any decision. There is also speculation that the Chicago Cubs will not bring back Joe Maddon, who would probably energize the Mets’ fan base.
The reasons to keep Callaway are more difficult for many fans to see. But there is the team’s record, for one. With 82 wins heading into Wednesday’s game against the Miami Marlins, this will be only the third Mets team to finish above .500 since the club moved to Citi Field in 2009.
Then again, the team has the presumptive N.L. rookie of the year in Pete Alonso, and the presumptive Cy Young Award winner in Jacob deGrom, who was scheduled to make his final start of the season on Wednesday. Yes, the bullpen was bad, but the offense performed well (going into Wednesday’s game the Mets were fifth in total bases in the National League), and so did the starting rotation. It is easy to question how a team with that many assets could play so miserably in the first half of the season?
“Sometimes those parts don’t always work together,” Callaway said. “We were missing some of that, right? Our bullpen didn’t perform the way we‘d like to in the first half and it cost us. We blew how many, 30 saves? That hurts. We didn’t always sync up our offense and our pitching. That cost us games.”
When asked before Tuesday’s win what his role was in how the season unfolded, Callaway evaded the question, perhaps because the Mets were still alive in the playoff race.
“We’re going to continue to fight,” he replied. “We’ve got a game to win tonight, and that’s what I focus on every day. I’m proud of the way everybody has fought.”
But despite their lousy start, the Mets did make an admirable push in the second half of the season, going 42-25 after the All-Star Game and reaching Wednesday’s game — the 158th of the season — with a mathematical chance to make the playoffs. An extremely thin chance.
With five games remaining, the Milwaukee Brewers needed only one win or a Mets loss to clinch the second National League wild card at the expense of the Mets and Cubs.
For a while, it looked as if the Mets’ final week of the season would reinforce the notion that the Callaway era was over after two years. A bad loss to the lowly Marlins on Monday was followed by eight desultory innings against them on Tuesday. If Callaway were being judged on how he handled the final week, it did not look very good.
But unlike the 2002 team, the 2019 Mets showed some fight. Michael Conforto hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning to tie the score, and the Mets won in the 11th on Brandon Nimmo’s bases-loaded walk.
The next day, because the Mets still had that subatomic chance at making the playoffs, Callaway was asked if deGrom could be used on three days’ rest Sunday if the Mets were still alive.
Callaway said yes but later cautioned reporters that their questions were getting too far ahead of events.
“I can tell you, if he’s healthy he will start opening day next year,” Callaway quipped.
Probably true, but that may not be Callaway’s decision to make.