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NEW YORK — Carlos Beltran had a great first day as the Mets’ new manager.
He said all the right things about his employers, about GM Brodie Van Wagenen, about the Mets long-suffering fan base, about the media he will be facing twice a day, every day, between February and October, and most importantly, about the roster he has been entrusted with turning into a winning baseball team.
He spoke movingly about his family, and his Puerto Rican roots, and grew emotional when answering a question in Spanish about the opportunity baseball provided him to become not only a manager, but perhaps someday, a Hall of Famer.
Truly, in terms of a public relations coup, the Mets could not have made a better hire.
But I must tell you, I was in the room 25 years ago when they rolled out Dallas Green, and three years later when they introduced Bobby Valentine, and 16 years ago when it was Art Howe’s turn, and two years after that when it was Willie Randolph.
I was also there just about two years ago when the Mets brought out Mickey Callaway, a guy known for turning the Cleveland Indians pitching staff into a powerhouse who had never managed a big-league game.
All of them began well, too. The enthusiasm and optimism at their introductory press conferences was just as high as at Beltran’s on Monday. At every one of them, the Mets were sure that this was going to be The Guy.
But despite the great expectations at the start, every one of those associations ended in some degree of disappointment.
Because of the player he was and the man that he is, you hope that the Carlos Beltran story will have a different ending.
But the fact is, the history of this franchise tells you the odds are against that. And the current makeup of the front office makes you wonder if it really makes a difference whose nameplate gets affixed to the door of the manager’s office at Citi Field these days.
Because until proven otherwise, the strong suspicion is that whoever the nominal manager of the Mets is, the real strings are being pulled by Van Wagenen, the agent turned GM.
That, along with the impressive playing résumé and pleasing personality of Beltran, is probably the biggest reason why the Mets were introducing him, and not Joe Girardi or Buck Showalter or Dusty Baker as the man to lead them into the future.
Not that any of those choices would have been better for the Mets; Beltran brings a career portfolio none of them could match, as well as an ease with the players, some of whom he actually played with or against before his retirement in 2017.
But it is impossible to overlook some basic facts: For one, like Callaway, Beltran is another inexperienced manager, albeit even less experienced than his predecessor, having never coached or managed anywhere in professional baseball. And for another, he really, really wanted this job, even going so far as to let his future employers know that he wanted to manage in Flushing, or nowhere.
The same way Van Wagenen seemingly got his job by telling Mets ownership what it wanted to hear — that the team as constituted required just minor tweaks to return to the form it showed in 2015, when it reached the World Series, so therefore no need to pursue any of the big-ticket free agents on last year’s market — so, too, does Beltran seem to have said what Van Wagenen so desperately needed to hear.
“Carlos knows what he doesn’t know,’’ Van Wagenen said, in the most humorously ironic line of his numbingly robotic opening remarks. When Disney opens its Hall of Animatronic GMs, the mechanical image of the highly scripted Van Wagenen will stand front and center.
But Van Wagenen never came out and said his new manager would have full dugout autonomy, and Beltran described the decision-making process between manager, GM and the Mets’ analytics team as a “collaboration.’’
Considering that it was reported that Van Wagenen had dictated a pitching change to Callaway via text, ordering him to pull Jacob deGrom in the seventh inning of a June game the Mets were winning, only to see the bullpen blow it in the eighth, a legitimate concern is that “collaboration’’ could come to mean the GM commands and the manager obeys.
It is possible that Beltran is more open to that method of management than a Girardi, a Showalter or a Baker would have been, but that seems to be the trend in modern baseball, manager as mouthpiece for an ultra-controlling GM.
Still, there are many reasons to believe Beltran could be highly successful where so many of his predecessors have failed. He is a wildly popular choice among former Mets — immediately upon getting the job, Beltran said he received congratulatory messages from Pedro Martinez, Carlos Delgado and Jose Reyes — and there is no doubt he is deeply respected by the Latin players in the Mets clubhouse.
Beltran is a mentor by nature — in 2015, the Yankees purposely located his spring training locker next to Aaron Judge’s, an arrangement that turned out to be beneficial to both — and you’d like to believe he will be able to bring out the best in both a veteran like Robinson Cano and a struggling youngster like Edwin Diaz. Whether he can reverse some of the negativity in other corners of the Mets clubhouse remains to be seen, but it is impossible to imagine Beltran cursing out a reporter for saying “See you tomorrow,’’ or allowing one of his players to threaten that same reporter, as Callaway did with Jason Vargas.
“Carlos will be a player’s manager,’’ Van Wagenen said, a term that used to be considered a veiled insult about a man who allows the lunatics to run his asylum. Now, it seems to mean one who can coax maximum effort out of an unmotivated roster.
Certainly, Beltran has his work cut out for him; even though the Mets finished strongly in 2019, going 34-21 in July and August, they will have holes in their starting rotation — Van Wagenen said he intends to give a qualifying offer to Zack Wheeler, who will certainly refuse — huge question marks in their bullpen, and no answers when it comes to when or even if Yoenis Cespedes, the highest-paid player on their roster, will set foot on the field in 2020.
And oh yeah, they have the world champion Washington Nationals in their division, as well as the Atlanta Braves, who they finished 11 games behind in the NL East, and the Phillies, who hired a proven winner in Girardi.
But like so many of his predecessors, Beltran seemed certain that he will be the man to make a significant difference in the Mets’ fortunes.
“I just want to rewrite our story,’’ he said.
Like all of the men who came before him, Carlos Beltran’s tenure as Mets manager started off well.
The important question is, how will it finish?
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