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Mistakes Were Made

So much sorrow at Citizens Bank Park Monday, implicit and otherwise. Mickey Callaway was sorry after he wasn’t. Jason Vargas [1] was sorry there was a distraction to the very fine people on both sides. Brodie Van Wagenen was sorry if anybody was under the impression that he’s telecommuting to the dugout. The rest of the Mets saved their sorry for the field. The final score — Philadelphia 13 New York 7 [2] — had remorsefulness written all over it.

As Oscar and Felix once told each other in rapid succession on The Odd Couple, you can stuff your sorries in a sack, Metsies.

We could be sorry we’ve watched the Mets year by year, game by game, but the onion determining why we continue to remain true to the orange and blue is wrapped in far too many layers for quick and easy analysis. We are only fleetingly sorry we do this. We are Mets fans. We don’t give up even after we give up.

Which differs from how Callaway ordered his expression of regrets to the public through the media pertaining to his incident with Tim Healey of Newsday. I won’t call it an altercation, because based on everything I’ve been able to glean, Healey of “see you tomorrow, Mickey” ironic infamy (and who may be sorry he’s no longer covering the Marlins for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel), didn’t do let alone hint at any altercating. The most sympathetic interpretation I can rustle up on the manager’s behalf is that Mickey was in a dark mood from the grim loss on Sunday and the determined interrogation he barely withstood regarding his decision to keep Edwin Diaz under lock and key until 23rd outs are recorded, never mind that the 23rd out Sunday was growing and eventually grew lethally elusive.

Long seasons. Close quarters. Myriad frustrations. Process a bland sentiment in a volatile moment and blow up at an innocent party. Let’s say this sort of thing can happen. Let’s say the manager then takes a deep breath, takes the reporter aside and either asks “what’s up?” or cuts straight to “my bad”. If that’s how it goes, it’s over and the story reverts to lousy bullpen management (not to mention construction) instead of the manager losing his mind and one of his starting pitchers corrosively stepping in with a notion toward elevating the abuse from verbal to physical.

And that’s the sympathetic interpretation. The Mets tend to lose sympathy like they lose ballgames: often. Despite the presumably sincere statement of regret [3] the Mets issued — and despite nature’s nobleman Jeff Wilpon calling Healey Sunday night to unruffle feathers — Callaway couldn’t spit out the idea on Monday afternoon that he was at fault. Again, a public “my bad” from the public figure who brought the story upon himself files this maelstrom away into our mental archives before it’s 36 hours old. It would be pulled out as the latest example of “oh my god” the next time the Mets got all Mets, but we’d be on to the next on-field adventure/misadventure as soon as possible. Damage control is supposed to control damage.

Mickey extended it instead, making his Monday presser about what a “tough competitor [4]” he is and how, you know, “Billy Martin punched a reporter one time, it’s just part of this game.” No, I don’t think so, Mick. Billy was an outlier. Billy did his punching in bars that he frequented regularly as a rule. Billy was considered a very troubled man. Also, Billy won a lot, for what that’s worth.

You know who else did some winning as a manager in New York? Gil Hodges, fifty years ago, an occasion the Mets are celebrating this weekend. Gil Hodges, as tough a competitor as big league baseball has ever known, got his messages across quietly and firmly. He remains revered to this day by everyone who came into contact with him, players and writers included. So if you want to model your behavior on someone who proceeded you in your chosen profession, sir, try No. 14. Nobody expects anybody to be Gil Hodges, but we could all do worse than to try to be at least a little like Gil Hodges.

Gil believed in second chances and so, in his way, does Callaway, because a couple of hours after dancing around the presumed talking point of the day, he gathered the beat reporters around him a second time (something that essentially never happens) and rolled out a little more detectable contrition. While preparing the Mets for their 13-7 defeat to the Phillies, the manager “got some feedback” from sources that got his attention and let it be known that for cursing out the guy who told him he’d see him tomorrow, “I’m definitely sorry.”

Reporters have to be thick-skinned no matter where they do their reporting. A baseball clubhouse probably builds the skin that much thicker [5]. These writers have to write accurately about a team that loses more than it wins, delineating further the failures and successes that their readers already understand happened. Then they have to face the players whose miscues they’ve detailed. There is a dance therein that everybody accepts. If the reporter is fair, the team members should be decent in return. The manager twice acting as if that wasn’t of particular import — first in cursing out Healey and then in not clearly admitting that’s not the way he or anybody in his shoes should conduct interpersonal relations — was rightly an issue. Mickey took a third swing and connected [6].

Vargas isn’t likely to jump into the box again where this contretemps is concerned. Why he decided to inject himself in the midst of Callaway v. Guy Who Said He’d See Him Tomorrow is unclear. Anybody who covered the Mets accurately in 2018 had to have written that Vargas was not a good pitcher, so maybe he’s preternaturally wary of anybody brandishing a microphone or notebook. If he is, he’s hidden it well from the rest of us. I’ve watched Vargas take questions after immensely awful starts and admired that he stood there and participated calmly and coolly when every question was basically, “Why were you so bad?”

It should be pointed out here that, as with repeated inquiries delving into bullpen misuse, these questions get asked over and over in order to divine answers that fully communicate a portrait of the game that’s just been played and the team that’s played it. We, the fans, are the consumers for this news. I watch the postgame scrums that surround the manager and the players and sometimes I roll my eyes a bit at the fourth iteration of the same line of inquiry, but I also understand why it’s done. I understand that if you don’t get an answer capable of scratching the surface, you have to try to get the your subject to scratch a little deeper. Once more, this is the dance. If nobody was interested in why Callaway made that move or why Vargas threw that pitch, nobody would be hired to find out and relate it.

Vargas didn’t pitch on Sunday, but he decided, for whatever reason, to make a preliminary move on Healey. Benefit of the doubt would lean on the long season/tough loss/cramped clubhouse equation described above. That’s harder to do with Vargas because, outside of the band-of-brothers notion that an attack on one is an attack on all (though Healey didn’t attack anybody, not even with words), it wasn’t his…I was gonna say “fight,” but it wasn’t a fight, not until Vargas feinted toward making it into one.

It would be nice to report that Vargas, as one of the senior men on the roster, offered a thoughtful second-day mea culpa. Nothing fancy, just something along the lines of “I overreacted in the heat of the moment, I shouldn’t have done that, I should know better, I’m sorry about that.” If he’s really harboring a grudge about something somebody wrote (which I don’t know is the case), he can take it up with the party of the other part one-on-one.

The pitcher’s chosen response [7] to his threatening Healey that he might “knock you the fuck out, bro,” turned out to be that the entire episode was “an unfortunate distraction” and that was “really all there is to it”. That and a $10,000 fine, same as levied by the Mets against Callaway. Perhaps that was apologia enough for Vargas’s tastes.

Distraction dissipated, the clearheaded Mets hit the field and the field, like the Phillies lineup, hit back. Dismal defense, even by those defenders playing their actual positions, was in abundance. Steven Matz [8] and his successors withdrew from the resistance. The Mets hit four solo homers and they lost by six, anyway. Edwin Diaz was not needed. Robinson Cano, who joined him in the same trade engineered by the new and ambitious general manager, went hitless.

What could have helped the Mets? Probably not that less new but still ambitious general manager issuing instructions to the manager while the game was in progress, since there’s no evidence Brodie Van Wagenen harbors tangibly more strategic baseball expertise than Mickey Callaway. Also, by regulation, general managers don’t tell managers what to do during games. Most teams understand this.

Ah, but the Mets, we were reminded during the course of Monday night, march to the beat of their own drummer. Mike Puma reported in the Post that not being in uniform doesn’t necessarily stop Van Wagenen from making moves with the lineup card [9]. Remember that game a few weeks back in Arizona [10], the one Jacob deGrom was removed from after a hip spasm but before it seemed there was an indisputable reason to take him out? And deGrom was obviously annoyed by Callaway’s call?

That wasn’t Callaway’s call, according to Puma (and other reporters who confirmed the story). That was Brodie finding channels to go through from home — because you can’t directly text or phone uniformed personnel — and telling Mickey to take Jake out ASAP thus taking the collaborative nature of the organization to a whole other level. Jake was taken out ASAP. Callaway fell on the decision grenade that night, but what else was he gonna do? A manager has to seem in control. Even this manager. Even in the age we live in where we shake our head during our umpteenth viewing of Moneyball at Philip Seymour Hoffman not heeding Brad Pitt’s analytically sound direction to play Hatteberg over Peña. You can meet all you want before and after the game. You can trade Peña to the Tigers. You can dismiss the manager. But as long as the manager is there, you gotta let the manager manage the game.

Van Wagenen reportedly didn’t. Presented with this latest 2019 Mets twist, Mickey denied anything was awry that night in Phoenix and Brodie sidestepped questions about it after Monday’s game, but this does feel like what happens with the New York Mets…which we know about because there are reporters looking into it because there are fans who want to know.

We also want to know that the 37-42 Mets are winning or, barring that statistical unlikelihood, have a chance to soon begin winning. It’s hard, however, to find any accurate reporting that would confirm that desire can be met.