It wasn’t an act. It wasn’t a show. It wasn’t for the television cameras or for the large media gathering.
Mickey Callaway’s introductory press conference at Citi Field — when he accentuated treating players like people, couldn’t hide his big smile or goofy laugh and made sure to shake everyone’s hand and learn their first and last names — was the new Mets manager in a nutshell.
That was Callaway when he was a two-sport superstar growing up in Germantown, Tenn., all the way through his time as a standout pitcher at Ole Miss, his 12-year professional baseball career and his torpedo-fast coaching rise up the Indians’ minor league system.
Confident but not cocky, overtly friendly and with a knack for lighting up a room, Callaway has a way of making everyone feel comfortable moments after meeting them.
“He has that ‘it’ factor,” said former high school teammate and close friend Collins Day. “It’s something you can’t describe. He can relate to anybody.”
The 42-year-old Callaway is the guy who wrote letters of apology to his high school teammates when he allowed the game-winning run as a junior in the state semifinals. As a senior, an arm injury limited him to just eight innings on the mound, so he became a base-stealing demon as a pinch runner, keying a run to the state championship game. During his time in pro ball, he spent his offseasons helping out his alma mater, Germantown High School, where his brother Casey now coaches, or other local high school programs where friends coach.
He chose to wear No. 36 with the Mets because he didn’t want to take a current player’s number. He changed numbers four times in Cleveland for the same reason. Teammates can’t recall him ever getting down. He had an uncanny ability to turn the page after a bad outing, to make the most out of his time while sidelined with an injury.
“I don’t think Mickey’s ever had a bad day in life, because he’s so positive in everything,” said David Dellucci, a 13-year veteran in the big leagues who played with Callaway at Ole Miss and with the Rangers. “He has such a positive outlook on life.”
His professional career, which took him to Korea and Taiwan, seven different minor league stops and three major league teams, fell short of expectations. But he made sure to learn something from each opportunity and use that information to launch the coaching phase of his career.
“He wouldn’t feel sorry for himself,” his father, Michael, said. “He’s had struggles, and he hasn’t quit. He figured out some way to make himself a living all these years in baseball.
“He’s not a quitter — he’s a competitor.”
Michael Callaway knew his elder son was special by the age of 10, when a local travel team, the Memphis Tigers, picked him up from the local Little League team and he continued to excel. A year later, a coach within the organization, Paul Stewart, taught him an overhand curveball — the pitch that would be his calling card and he would teach to Indians pitchers decades later.
“That’s my curveball,” Stewart tells Michael Callaway to this day.
Scouts began following Callaway, named after Mickey Mantle by his Yankee-fan father, by his sophomore year in high school, raving about his makeup and stuff. He threw 90 miles per hour without the attitude that came with most top prospects.
When he wasn’t on the field, he could be found messing with different grips, looking for different ways to find an edge. One day Germantown baseball coach Phil Clark came up from behind Callaway and put his arms on his shoulders. He was stunned by the difference in strength in the two limbs, unlike anything he had seen. In his down time, Callaway would strengthen his arm by doing exercises with surgical tubing.
“He probably was doing that more than he did his homework,” Clark said.
But baseball wasn’t Callaway’s only love. He could dunk a basketball as a 5-foot-11 freshman and was the team’s star throughout high school. As a senior, in a non-conference game against Central, a high school in Memphis, Callaway put on a 3-point shooting and dunking show, wowing the inner-city foe.
“I can remember the whole team from Central basically engulfing him after the game,” Clark said. “They wanted to meet Mickey. They hadn’t seen a kid from the suburbs do that to them ever.”
He was voted “Mr. Germantown” that year, as popular as he was gifted.
“He didn’t have problems getting a date,” Clark said.
Most friends, teammates and coaches didn’t envision Callaway as a coach. He was too talented. They saw him playing professionally deep into his 30s, making a healthy living in the game. An arm injury his senior year at Germantown scuttled his draft stock, so he attended Ole Miss instead of joining the Giants after being selected in the 16th round.
He was a Friday night starter by his sophomore season, finished ninth on the school’s all-time list with 20 victories and was chosen in the seventh round of the 1996 draft by the then-Devil Rays.
It took him just three years to reach the big leagues, getting called up in September 1999. But he spent the entire following year with the Triple-A Durham Bulls and most of the next season, too. He would become the team’s all-time winningest pitcher, the kind of record nobody wants, because it means you’ve spent too much time in the minor leagues.
But Callaway didn’t treat his time in Durham as a burden. He was a leader, easily approachable and harboring no resentment, Bulls general manager Mike Birling recalled. He had some Crash Davis in him, the fictional character played by Kevin Costner in the hit movie “Bull Durham” about the forever minor leaguer.
“He was kind of that guy. He was a leader on this team, like Crash was in the movie,” Birling said. “He was one of those guys the players would go to and our coaching staff would go to. He knew what we were looking for, and what needed to be done.”
He got his break before the 2002 season, when the Rays dealt him to the Angels. Callaway got called up late in the year when Aaron Sele went down with a shoulder injury, posting a 4.19 ERA over 34 ¹/₃ innings and helping Anaheim win the AL West. He was left off the postseason roster, though, but received a World Series ring.
“There was a baseball aptitude that I saw and we saw as a coaching staff about Mickey,” said Rockies manager Bud Black, who was the Angels’ pitching coach at the time. “He was always going to be mentally in the right spot.”
Callaway made a career-high 17 appearances for the Angels the following year, but was released at the end of that season and picked up by the Rangers. In Texas, he was again shuttled between Triple-A and the big leagues before getting released after 2004. He spent the next three years in Korea playing for the Hyundai Unicorns and was a two-time All-Star. Another injury put his career on hold, but sent him on a new journey, as the interim coach at Division III Texas A&M International University.
This wasn’t a plush gig. He had limited resources, a shoestring budget and a short roster. Callaway had to set up the field himself, cut the grass and draw the lines. He knew the job had a shelf life — he wasn’t quitting his playing career yet — but he treated the program like it was his own, recruiting for the next coach. He had the itch. Helping others improve gave him satisfaction; watching them win brought him joy unlike being out on the field himself.
“I knew that this was what I wanted to do,” he said.
Dellucci could see the change years earlier. During Callaway’s final season with the Rangers he talked to coaches and fellow pitchers more, in-depth conversations about the game, as if he was preparing then for his next career. This wasn’t just curiosity. Callaway was gathering information, soaking in everything he could.
“He was becoming more of a student of the game,” Dellucci said.
After the year of coaching in college, Callaway played half of a season in Taiwan in 2009, but his shoulder ached and he missed coaching. He landed a job with the Indians as a low Single-A pitching coach, moved up to high Single-A the next year and became the team’s minor league pitching coordinator in 2012. By 2013, he was the Indians pitching coach, and Monday was introduced as the new Mets manager.
“He’s a very sharp guy, he’s honest, got a little swagger,” said Astros hitting coach Dave Hudgens, the Indians’ minor league field coordinator when Callaway was working as a pitching coach in their system.
He was never considered the favorite for a job, each time winning over his future bosses with his engaging personality and baseball knowledge. He took something from all his stops along the way, gleaning knowledge from the likes of former or current major league managers such as Black, Joe Maddon, Terry Collins, Mike Scioscia, Ron Roenicke, Terry Francona and Buck Showalter.
Callaway admitted he learned just as much from the pitchers he had in Cleveland about how to maximize talent and make adjustments based on the individual. There wasn’t one blueprint for everyone, and the result was a 180-degree change for the Indians, whose pitching went from a weakness to one of baseball’s best. Their starting rotation led the American League in strikeouts each of the past four seasons (2014-2017), set a major league record for strikeouts (1,614) and led the major leagues in ERA this season (3.30) while finishing second in the American League in team ERA in both 2015 and 2016.
“Mickey can see right away what you’re missing,” said Day, his high school teammate who now coaches his own high school team and has received help from Callaway. “I would need a video camera, he would use the naked eye.”
The Mets hope he can bring that magic with him to Queens after the once-formidable pitching staff has been beaten down by injuries and poor performance. Callaway ran the gamut as a player, from a superstar in high school to winner in college and journeyman at the professional level. It is why those close to him feel so strongly he will succeed in his new job.
“He will be the ultimate players’ manager,” Dellucci said. “There will not be any question where these individuals stand with him, and he’s going to back his players 100 percent.
“There’s no question he’s primed and ready for this opportunity.”
— Additional reporting by Kevin Kernan