NEW YORK — Carlos Mendoza’s fingers fidgeted slightly as he successfully buttoned his New York Mets jersey. Standing nearby, president of baseball operations David Stearns quipped, “That’s the first test.” Mendoza then smiled, donned a Mets cap, tugged hard on its bill and said, “Man, this feels good. This feels great. This is a great day. This is a special day.”
Nearly a week and a half ago, Mendoza felt tired at home in Tampa after traveling across the country to San Diego for the latest of his several managerial job interviews. At around 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 5, one of Mendoza’s sons grew bored so he asked to play catch. After some fielding work, Mendoza’s phone trilled with a call. Stearns was ringing him from New York. After narrowing down the candidate pool to four, Mendoza had emerged — after an all-day video conference call, personal conversations with Stearns and a one-on-one chat with owner Steve Cohen — as the top choice to be the new Mets manager.
At Mendoza’s introductory press conference on Tuesday, the 43-year-old displayed an infectious personality and self-awareness regarding the challenges before him. The more Mendoza spoke — about expectations in New York, “collaborating” with the front office, influences, beliefs and priorities — the more he seemed to confirm Stearns’ high praise about communication skills. Mendoza aced the press conference. In his job, strong communication matters. But so do so many other things that can’t be gleaned on Day 1 from a podium.
Questions linger about Mendoza’s readiness to be a manager in the country’s biggest media market, considering the former New York Yankees bench coach has never held the job at the major-league level. But during a positive first impression, Mendoza offered interesting thoughts on his philosophies.
Here are some takeaways after hearing Stearns and Mendoza discuss Mendoza’s fit as Mets manager:
In outlining what they each believe “partnering” means from a practical standpoint, Mendoza and Stearns both described a balancing act.
At Stearns’ introductory press conference in early October, he said he wanted to find a manager he can grow with as a “true partner.” Front offices across the league have overused the word “collaboration” to the point where its meaning just feels like a code for, “Do as we say.” But publicly, Stearns’ eyes have always lit up when he talks about wanting people around him who push back on ideas and ask good questions. As with how many clubs are run these days, Mendoza will undoubtedly receive input from the front office on decisions but the relationship should feature a healthy back-and-forth.
“These are two distinct jobs and they require two distinct skill sets,” Stearns said. “I would not be a good major-league manager and I’m not going to try to be a major-league manager. That’s why we hired Carlos, and he will do that job.
“I’m going to try to do everything I can to support him and help him be as successful as he possibly can. He’s gonna do that with me as well. That’s one of the exciting parts of this, is that he has the ability, I think, to make us better in the front office — to push us, to ask us questions, and to help us consider the full picture as we seek to put the team together.”
That all sounds great, but effective teamwork generally requires trust. And trust sometimes takes time. On the other hand, it would’ve been silly for Stearns to appoint someone as manager whom he didn’t genuinely want to hear insight from. It won’t be known how much alignment exists between the front office and manager until a disagreement arises — about playing time, roles or something else — and a resolution gets reached. For now, Mendoza and Stearns said all the right things about challenging one another, which is a start.
“It’s trusting each other, knowing that we’re going to have each other’s backs, good or bad,” Mendoza said, “and that we’re going to have conversations that are going to be tough but at the end of the day, because of the trust and the respect that we have for each other, we’re going to move on and accomplish great things.”
Stearns and Mendoza expect to talk fairly regularly — probably every day. Over time, the relationship will evolve. If it goes right, perhaps it will look similar to how Stearns and Craig Counsell reached the point where they constantly communicated freely and honestly about everything while with the Milwaukee Brewers.
“Those things can go through different phases depending on where you are in the season, where you are in the life cycle of an organization,” Stearns said, “but we’re going to work closely together and spend a lot of time together.”
Judging from Mendoza’s answers about blending analytics and “feel,” he sounds interested in using information to inform decisions without becoming beholden to what the data says.
“At the end of the day, it’s a game and it’s played by human beings,” Mendoza said. “You gotta be able to win the game. You gotta have feel for people. That’s why for me it’s important to connect, to get to know players. When you’re making the decision and you’re looking at information, you better have a good feel of what you’re dealing with out there, who’s capable of handling certain situations.”
Mendoza’s coaching staff should feature experience, and he stressed an ability to hold people accountable.
So what will the process be for hiring the rest of the coaching staff?
You guessed it.
“It’s a collaborative process,” Stearns said.
Considering Mendoza is a first-timer, expect some members of the staff to carry experience (pitching coach Jeremy Hefner will stay in his role but the status of others under contract like hitting coach Jeremy Barnes remains unclear).
More than a few times, Mendoza mentioned the idea of accountability. He said he wants his staffers to be passionate and energetic, but he also wants them to hold players accountable. That sounds like a good thing for the Mets. Late last season, veteran outfielder Tommy Pham said he respected the work ethics of the team’s leaders such as Francisco Lindor, Brandon Nimmo and Pete Alonso, but felt like other position players didn’t work hard enough. Pham made sure to credit the prior coaching staff under Buck Showalter, saying that the coaches seemed to always be willing and available to help. So maybe there’s only so much a coach can do. But an ability to hold others accountable stands out as an important character trait.
Can Mendoza do it as a first-time manager? Does he have the presence? Can he command a clubhouse featuring accomplished veterans? Can he get through to talented young players? Stearns says yes.
“One of the unique things about Carlos that people told me about him and that I felt through interview processes,” Stearns said, “is this is someone with tremendous people skills and people like and get along with, and can relate to. But he also holds people to incredibly high standards. He talks about accountability and he also kind of lives it. And that is difficult to find. It’s difficult to find people, leaders, that people really like and enjoy working with, but also someone who’s going to expect a lot out of them and I think Carlos does that.”
For Mendoza, leadership in New York City requires embracing high expectations.
In the Mets’ press release on Monday, Stearns said in his statement that Mendoza “knows what it takes to lead, especially here in New York.” Mendoza’s experience with the Yankees mattered to Stearns during the search.
“It was certainly a factor,” Stearns said. “He could articulate what he’d seen. He could talk about experiences that he personally had had in this city, in the environment with the pressure, with the fans, with the media that other candidates who haven’t been here just haven’t lived yet. And they would, and they would adjust, but Carlos has that firsthand knowledge and so nothing’s going to surprise him.”
Mendoza said he hadn’t yet talked to Showalter, the man he is replacing, but he did talk to former Mets managers Terry Collins and Willie Randolph about handling the job in New York.
“Obviously, there are high expectations and the fans are going to let you know,” Mendoza said. “They expect to win. They expect a championship. They’re going to let you know when you’re not meeting those expectations. But I go back to relationships — building that culture in that clubhouse (with) players and people that you work with who can trust you. I believe this is a huge part of the job. You’re going to go through ups and downs and I’m ready for this challenge. I’m ready for this new chapter and I can’t wait to get going.”
Mendoza mentioned championships, expecting to compete in 2024 and liking the core of his roster.
People in the industry expect the Cohen and the Mets to spend, even if they don’t rack up a payroll as high as last year’s. The Mets plan to compete. Whenever he was asked about the roster, Mendoza made sure to point out that the Mets had just won 100 games in 2022, crediting Showalter and some of the players.
“We’ve got some work to do and I trust David and his team to continue to make improvements and to continue to add,” Mendoza said, “but I’m very excited with the group of players that we have on our roster.”
Mendoza said he has spoken to about half the roster — early in the process, Stearns also asked a few players for input into what they want from a manager — and he said he planned to make visits soon to get to know players.
When asked about influences, the first name Mendoza listed was Phillies manager Rob Thomson, formerly a longtime Yankees coach. Thomson was a first-time manager in 2022. His inexperience in the head role at the major-league level did not hinder Philadelphia. He led the Phillies to the World Series. So, success can happen for first-time managers, even if the Mets’ recent past before Showalter indicates otherwise.
Among other mentors Mendoza named: Dusty Baker, Luis Aparicio and Randolph.
In describing his own managerial style, Mendoza, who has experience managing in the minor leagues and in Venezuela, stressed relationships, details and preparation.
“I want the team to go out there and play hard every pitch and at the end of the day, I want them to have fun,” Mendoza said. “I’m a big believer — I’ve learned through my experience — that the connections, the trust, the respect, the relationships in the locker room and the clubhouse, when you care about people, when you connect, it creates that culture that we’re talking about that eventually will show up on the baseball field. Guys are going to be prepared. Just know that we understand the expectations here in New York.”
Mendoza came across as genuine — and that kind of personality should resonate with players.
A couple of times during his 15-minute opening statement, Mendoza became emotional. It was obvious how much the opportunity mattered to him. During his talks with Stearns and Cohen, Mendoza’s energy was believed to come across as palpable. In front of the media, he displayed authenticity — that matters to players, who have an ability to sniff out phonies.
Mendoza recalled his personal story using touching scenes involving those closest to him. He mentioned how thankful he was to his wife, who left her career as a dentist in Venezuela to support his baseball desires. He weaved messages in Spanish when talking directly to his father, sitting in the first row, and in instructing people in Venezuela to follow their dreams. And he talked about telling his parents in Venezuela 30 years ago about preferring not to follow his father’s footsteps in engineering, preferring to chase the goal of becoming a major leaguer.
“Well, I didn’t become a big league player,” Mendoza said, “but today I’m the manager of the New York Mets.”
(Top photo of Carlos Mendoza: Gordon Donovan/Associated Press)