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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Oh Mickey, Just How Fine?

Let us suppose there is no more definitive sample of a manager’s effectiveness than his first 37 games in a new job. Let us make this dubious supposition because the current manager of the New York Mets, Mickey Callaway, has managed 37 games in what is still his new post and there’s nothing else definitive by which to judge his performance to date. There’s observation and anecdote and a sense that maybe he’s gonna be really good or maybe he’s not, but none of that shows up in the standings. The standings are all that show up in the standings.

So how is Mickey doing when measured against the other 37-game wonders in Mets history? As Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits said of Harry with the daytime job in “Sultans of Swing,” he’s doing all right. That’s based on Mickey’s record across this definitive 37-game stretch, a span 18 of his 20 fellow Mets managers managed to put on the board before managing further. The board was more compressed for interim skippers Salty Parker (15 games) and Mike Cubbage (7 games). Like Harry from the aforementioned Sultans, they don’t make the scene.

Your perusal of the standings will tell you that after 37 games, Mickey Callaway has guided the Mets to 19 wins and 18 losses. They were all his responsibility if neither wholly his doing nor fault. When the definitive sample was 12, maybe 14 games, there was no reason to not crown Callaway the sultan of managing. No Met manager had ever led the Mets to as good a start as he had at that tender juncture of a first season; no Met manager had ever introduced himself so well, regardless of when in a given schedule he had commenced his tenure.

The Mets were 11-1, then 12-2. Lately they’ve been less than that. That’s why you can’t form definitive judgments after 12 or 14 games. That’s why you need 37 games, at least when all you have is 37 games. The Callaway Mets, at 19-18, aren’t as impressive as they were. Mickey Callaway now officially has good old days to look back on wistfully. Some Mets managers, as they had just gotten going, had even better old days to remember. For a few, it could be said definitively that they never received better new days beyond them.

Based on those ever so helpful standings, the best First 37 Games manager among all Mets managers was Buddy Harrelson. Harrelson replaced the most successful manager the Mets had ever had, Davey Johnson. That’s counting beyond 37 games in Johnson’s case. In Harrelson’s case, 37 games was ideal. Certainly the Mets were, running up a record of 28-9 after Davey finished his heretofore brilliant Met career at 20-22 and out in 1990. Frank Cashen fired a guy who had never won fewer than 87 games across any of his six full seasons because his team was stumbling along after 42 games.

Using 42 games to draw so significant a conclusion? That’s crazy.

Using 37 games to draw any kind of conclusion? That’s what we’re doing here, and for 37 games, Buddy was exactly what the Mets needed. He was the freshest breath of air an in-season managerial change ever wrought. The air that was stale in the last days of Davey dissipated. Everybody was recharged. Everybody was resilient. Everybody was ready to play ball under Buddy. The Mets surged from seven out of first place to on the cusp of grabbing the lead. No manager has ever made his mark 37 games in the way Harrelson did.

The Mets’ tear wasn’t quite so torrid the rest of 1990. Harrelson did not steer the Mets to a division title. By the end of 1991, Cubbage was using his office. It’s almost as if you can only tell so much after 37 games.

Yogi Berra’s first 37 games as Mets manager were similarly impressive. He was thrust into managing the 1972 Mets under the worst circumstances imaginable, following the Spring Training death of Gil Hodges. Berra was handed a job nobody wished anybody but Gil still had, and he and his Mets responded amazingly. After 37 games, they were 27-10, five lengths ahead of the field. After 156 slightly strike-shortened games, however, the Mets were 83-73, because however good a manager Berra might have been, he wasn’t much of a doctor, and that’s what the injury-riddled 1972 Mets really could have used.

Unlike Harrelson, Berra made it through his second season as manager in style, with his 1973 club roaring from behind to capture the NL East and NL pennant. Even at their You Gotta Believe hottest, however, the Mets never played quite as well for Berra as they did when he first took over. Yogi was fired 109 games into the 1975 season, as strange as it seems to consider Yogi being treated like a regular manager and not Yogi Frigging Berra.

Remember Jerry Manuel? Remember his immediate impact on the Mets? It was ten years ago now, so maybe it’s not top of mind. Manuel was a Harrelson type of hire: on the coaching staff, chosen to replace an accomplished incumbent whose team was in the doldrums. Willie Randolph hadn’t accomplished as much as Johnson, but he was less than two seasons removed from helming the Mets to a postseason when he was nudged aside for Manuel in June of 2008. Had Randolph added an extra postseason berth to his résumé in 2007, he wouldn’t have gone anywhere. But ’07 was no ’06, and ’08 appeared to be going nowhere, thus the decision to give Willie the boot and Jerry a shot.

Jerry was an injection of adrenaline into the body Metropolitan. Where once we were sluggish, we were slugging. Where once were out of it, we were on top of it. When Randolph was asked to leave his place of residence, the Mets were a saggy 34-35. After 37 games of Manuel, the Mets were 23-14 as Jerrymen and in first place by a hair over the Phillies overall. The hair would thin out by September and the Mets would again just miss the postseason. In a familiar refrain, Manuel’s debut would overshadow all of his followups. When Jerry was let go after the 2010 season, there were no playoff appearances on his ledger, just a stubborn layer of regret.

Jeff Torborg was hired to overwhelm the regretful way Harrelson’s (and Cubbage’s) time in the managerial seat ended. The 1991 Mets went 77-84, the franchise’s first losing year since 1983. Torborg was going to usher winning back to Flushing. For 37 games, there was no more effective usher in any theater. The Mets were 21-16. Then the 1992 movie turned into a horror show and Torborg was, depending on your viewpoint, either helpless to keep the audience from vacating the cinema or one of the characters who made the whole thing scarier. Jeff lasted the full 162 games in 1992 (72-90), but only 38 more in 1993 (13-25).

Another 21-16 entry in our 37-game sweepstakes was Joe Frazier. His 1976 Mets galloped out of the starting gate, though truth be told, they had already broken down some from the pace they’d set at 18-9. Frazier’s reputation as the right leader at the right time fizzled as that particular presidential campaign year wore down. Upper management elected to dismiss him 45 games into 1977.

Are you thinking that a winning record in a Mets manager’s first 37 games is a sign of not so good things to come? Contrary evidence is at hand: Davey Johnson — the Mets manager we’ve already identified as most successful ever — got out to a 20-17 start in 1984, and everything would get only better with and around him for several seasons. Davey was the second Mets manager to have started 20-17. George Bamberger had the same record when he assumed the reins in 1982. Sadly, his case presents more evidence that a winning record in a Mets manager’s first 37 games is precisely a sign of not so good things to come. Bambi finished ’82 at 65-97 and resigned at 16-30 in ’82.

Nobody’s perfect. Barely shading middling should sometimes be viewed as progress. That’s what Willie Randolph did upon his ascent to Mets manager in 2005. At 19-18, he essentially blew away the blahs left over from the Art Howe era. At 19-18, Callaway hasn’t quite put the last days of Terry Collins behind us, but since we live in the present, and his 37-game record is the only one that is active, we prefer Callaway’s 19-18 to the 17-20 posted by Collins in 2011 or even the 17-20 compiled by Gil Hodges in 1968. Neither Terry nor Gil lit up the standings 37 games into their respective Met tenures, but good things were not beyond their grasp. For Hodges, they came the following year. For Collins, they’d have to wait a while.

For Bobby Valentine — who shares a birthday with Mickey Callaway, albeit exactly 25 years apart (the Met managerial equivalent of Adams and Jefferson both dying on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence) — there was no sign in his first 37 games of much good at all. To be fair, Bobby V’s first 37 games should probably be loaded down with asterisks since they bridged two seasons, one that was already in the toilet and the other that had yet to arrive in Flushing. Over the last 31 games of 1996, Bobby’s original Mets, bequeathed to him by Dallas Green, went 12-19. During the first six games of 1997, when the Mets were on an extended California road trip to start the season, they were 2-4. Add it up, and it doesn’t amount to much: 14-23.

Within a few weeks, though, things began to click, and Bobby was the manager of a surprise contender that finished 1997 at 88-74 and became a turn-of-the-millennium playoff staple. It’s almost as if a Mets manger’s first 37 games isn’t a reliable indicator of anything. Or, in Art Howe’s case, it tells you all you need to know, since Art’s first 37 Mets games gave us 16-21, and the rest of Art’s stay wasn’t appreciably more encouraging. Or, in the case of Joe Torre, 16-21 in the midst of 1977 was par for the course of what he’d deliver through 1981, but not a harbinger of Torre’s managerial career overall. He’s in the Hall of Fame, you know.

For the record, the rest of the records after 37 games were: Roy McMillan, 18-19 (and gone after his 26-27 interim stint wound down in 1975); Frank Howard, 15-22 en route to 52-64 en route to “thanks a bunch” for completing Bamberger’s unexpired term in 1983; Wes Westrum, 12-25 upon taking over for Casey Stengel in the summer of 1965; Casey Stengel, 12-25 upon inventing the Mets in 1962; and Dallas Green, 10-27 as he volubly if futilely attempted to clean up after Torborg while 1993 festered.

I’m having some fun with Callaway’s 37-game sample size because it’s all we’ve got for now. Weather permitting, we’ll soon have 38 and a whole new set of impressions. Mickey’s record is fine, if not mindblowing. Maybe we’ll give him a whole half-a-season before we begin definitively deciding what to make of him.

7 comments to Oh Mickey, Just How Fine?

  • LeClerc

    Who’s playing up to expectations?

    Everyday: Cabrera
    Bench: Nimmo, Lagares
    Rotation: DeGrom, Syndegaard
    Bullpen: Gsellman, Lugo, Familia

    If Conforto, Cespedes, Bruce, Rosario, Matz, Wheeler and Ramos pull their weight – Callaway will be deemed more than competent. If Frazier, Flores and Gonzalez get hot (along with the aforementioned) the Mets can contend for the playoffs.

  • 37, the Stengel Method.

    • If we were doing this after 31 games, Casey wouldn’t look so bad, all things considered. The Mets were 12-19. If we were doing this after 48 games, Casey would look worse, since a 17-game losing streak ensued.

      As No. 37 was known to say, you could look it up.

      • Daniel Hall

        Ssshhh! Nobody mention 17-game losing streaks around these Mets, please! They’ll only get ideas … -.-

  • Greg Mitchell

    Reality check: Nats already ahead of Mets–without Murph at all, and barely Rendon, with Zimmerman falling apart and often out, and no Eaton. Ponder that.

  • eric1973

    This was terrific, Greg. Love the walks through history.

    Most impressive of all was Casey’s 12-25, considering they went 28-95 the rest of the way.