Because of the miracle of BaseballReference.com, I am able to pinpoint the exact night when the late Chuck Tanner, the nicest man in the game’s history, went full-Mickey Callaway on me, even though nearly 37 years have passed since that date.
It was July 31, 1982: a night game at Shea Stadium won by the Mets, 9-4, the loss dropping the Pirates to 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Phillies. Afterward, I entered the visiting clubhouse and walked into the manager’s office. I’ve no recollection how many reporters joined me. It was a night off for the great Charley Feeney, because the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette didn't have a Sunday paper then. Russ Franke of the Pittsburgh Press might have been there. I’d imagine there were some New York radio types — there always were.
There were no television cameras. That much is certain.
The question that sent Tanner into a rage was posed as politically as possible. I was a pretty crummy baseball writer; I didn’t understand the job to the degree necessary to excel. But I knew how to handle an interview. That question was a masterpiece of diplomacy, and I’m still proud of it:
“Chuck, did you have any problem with the way Omar played Backman’s ball?”
In the eighth inning, with a runner on base, Mets veteran Wally Backman smacked a shot to deep center off reliever Enrique Romo. It flew over Moreno’s head.
“No, we always play Backman in,” Tanner replied.
Moreno was among the fastest players in baseball, and had stolen 96 bases just two years earlier. From my perspective in the press box, it did not appear as though he was expending all that speed to chase the ball to the wall as Backman circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run. Perhaps from the dugout it appeared that he had. When I countered with the gentle suggestion that I wasn’t referring to Moreno’s positioning, Tanner suddenly recognized what I meant. And he became enraged.
I don’t recall how long his tirade lasted. It might have been it a minute. When you’re the object of such invective, it seems longer. I don’t remember the specific verbiage. Much of it was definitely unprintable, all of it focused on the notion that I — and perhaps any reporter, but definitely me in particular — did not have the standing to question the effort of Tanner’s players.
There are enormous differences in what I encountered that night and what occurred between Newsday's Tim Healey and Mets manager Mickey Callaway after New York's 5-3 loss to the Cubs on Sunday. The group of reporters addressing Healey’s use of the Mets’ bullpen had already departed the manager’s office when, Healey said, he noticed Callaway leaving as well and offered a simple, “See you tomorrow, Mickey.”
Callaway took that as an affront and cursed at Healey. The Mets players saw this, and the situation escalated when Callaway told a team publicist to have Healey removed from the locker room and pitcher Jason Vargas threatened to knock the reporter out, and then moved toward him before being stopped by teammates Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Gomez.
Confrontations between managers and the media go back far past my experience that night in New York. Earlier that same 1982 season, Tanner — and I swear to you, there was no nicer man, ever — exploded when a KDKA radio reporter, the late Goose Goslin, asked him to evaluate his team with the first third of the season complete.
“We’ve been horse—,” Tanner said. “Specifically,” Goslin asked, looking for a response he could put on the radio. “Specifically horse—.” It did not end there, but that was the nicest part of Tanner’s diatribe.
Radio reporter Paul Olden wound up on the wrong end of a Tommy Lasorda rant in 1978 when he asked a simple question after the Dodgers lost an extra-innings game on a three-homer day by Cubs slugger Dave Kingman: What was your opinion of Kingman’s performance?
If you’ve never heard Lasorda’s response, it is glorious, in a way, (although definitely not safe for work).
In 2015, Reds manager Bryan Price ripped baseball writer C. Trent Rosecrans with 77 f-bombs for breaking news that catcher Devin Mesoraco would be absent for a game. “I don’t like it,” Price said among all the profanity. “I don’t think you guys need to know everything.”
Callaway spoke with the media Monday and said he believes “everybody deserves respect regardless of job title or role” and promised to “move on” from what he labeled a “distraction.” It wasn’t the apology many in the media were looking for, particularly when he invoked the fact Billy Martin had once punched a reporter who was interviewing him. Martin was an ex-big league manager at the time, so it probably wasn’t prudent to bring up that particular episode.
This is an age when Twitter can speed episodes such as this to every corner of the globe in an instant, when TV sports debate shows and radio talk shows are aching for such material and luxuriate in picking apart every nuance. And it has been true forever that a one-day story never should be allowed to extend its life beyond a 24-hour span.
Callaway’s intransigence on this topic only caused him more trouble — at five games under .500, he hardly needs more — so he later called reporters into his office and did apologize for what had occurred with Healey.
It was a different media age when Tanner went off on me. He never said he was sorry for anything he said that night at Shea. I didn’t expect it. I expected to be treated the same way on the Sunday after Backman’s inside-the-parker as I had been on the Friday before it. And that’s how it went.