How Jason Vargas Made Mickey Callaway’s Next Job Search More Difficult

Mickey Callaway is in his second season as New York Mets manager, and — barring a surge in the standings — it will be his last.

Callaway is in first MLB managerial job, and — again, barring a surge in the standings — it will be his last.

Callaway has a losing record, and he is working for a general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, who didn’t hire him. Van Wagenen expected the team would contend. In fact, he bragged that the Mets should be the favorite to win the National League East. 

So Callaway is toast. Almost certainly.

The Mets’ performance is not entirely Callaway’s fault. Van Wagenen assembled the team. Now there are reports that Van Wagenen is making in-game decisions. Van Wagenen denies it.

Callaway is only 44. And he came to this job with a good reputation as a pitching coach from his years with the Cleveland Indians.

Before the afternoon of Sunday, June 23, Callaway stood a decent chance of getting another turn somewhere as a manager after he and the Mets part ways.

Going too far

That is highly unlikely now.

Callaway is not entirely at fault here, either. Mets left-hander Jason Vargas deserves a great share of the blame.

Callaway crossed a line when he lost his cool with a reporter for saying, “See you tomorrow.”

The reporter, Tim Healey of Newsday, said didn’t he mean it a snarky way. Even if Healey’s remark was dripping with obvious, intended irony, Callaway’s action went too far.

But he still might have been OK if Vargas hadn’t threatened and then charged at Healey.

Then it became a news story.

Baby, it’s cold inside that locker room

In the aftermath of the ugly incident, Evan Drellich of the Athletic wrote: “In some clubhouses, decency towards reporters has slowly eroded into an optional topping, a cheerful surprise when available but definitely not expected by the beat reporters themselves.”

I want to offer my perspective. First off, I have never been an MLB beat writer. However, I have visited MLB locker rooms as a reporter in each decade since the 1970s. And because I am not there all the time, the changes in the attitude and demeanor of the players are stark.

While baseball is my favorite sport, I have found baseball players to my least favorite group of athletes to interview.

And a lot of sports writers feel that way.

Heck, I asked Phoenix Suns coach Frank Johnson to respond to allegations from a neighbor that the coach had an affair with the man’s wife. Johnson treated me more politely than some big-name MLB players have in recent years when answering routine questions. 

The media-MLB player relationship was never that good. 

Thankfully you don’t have the blatant harassment of female writers that was commonplace back in the day. But in other ways, it is worse.

Back in 1979 when Willie McCovey was telling me to “get the hell out” of the Giants’ locker room, he was showing contempt for me.

Thirty-some years later, many players have become adept at showing reporters are beneath contempt.

The players answer the questions, but often they communicate in tone, in facial expression, and in body language what a burden it is to field even the simplest, most benign inquiry. Many play cat-and-mouse games as to when they can spare a few minutes to take questions.

Not news

As Drellich wrote in his article, MLB beat reporters are reluctant to write about this dynamic. First off reporters are not supposed to be the story. Secondly, readers think that anyone who gets paid to go baseball games and meet big league baseball players is lucky and should not complain about anything.

Finally, the readers are fans of the players, not fans of the writers.

So if it had just been the lame-duck manager lashing out at a reporter after a tough loss, the incident in Chicago wouldn’t have found a wide audience.

Other teams would have known about it. Other media types would have heard about it. 

But that’s it. It would have been for industry insiders only.

The media relations people would have arranged for Callaway and Healey to meet and patch things up. Callaway would have said he was sorry and then told Healey all the reasons he wasn’t sorry. Sort of like Callaway did when talking to media after his meeting with Healey.  (Callaway actually had to come back to publicly say he was sorry.)

Vargas’ actions changed everything.

What the front office cares about

Vargas isn’t even pretending he’s sorry.

He fell back on the there-is-more-to-it-than-you-realize-but-we-need-to-move-on defense. Vargas was fined, but he will get off more or less scot-free. His future in the game depends entirely on his performance. Which was true before. 

Callaway might think he is coming out of this OK too. He paid a relatively small fine, and he had to say “I am sorry” to someone he doesn’t like.

But he is damaged goods.

In his post-apology press conference, Callaway joked that Billy Martin punched a reporter once.

Martin got fired a lot as a manager.

He was rehired because, even if he was a pain to deal with, he won.

Callaway isn’t winning. He can still save himself by doing so. Now.

Everyone in baseball knows Van Wagenen is something of a train wreck as a general manager with the Mets. So prospective employers might have cut Callaway some slack.

Not now.

Front office types don’t care that the media doesn’t like the guy.

They do care that Callaway failed to show grace under pressure when acting as the face of the franchise. Jeff Wilpon, the Mets COO and a member of the team’s ruling family, had to issue a public apology.

He was embarrassed. 

That, coupled with losing, is unforgivable. 

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