The Mets’ decision to hire Carlos Beltrán was frictionless for precisely one week. After his introductory press conference on November 4, the praise for him flowed, steady and validating. Beltrán was smart, beloved; he was a noted clubhouse presence, a sharp candidate, a potential Hall of Famer. The week passed. Then came the friction.
The Athletic’s bombshell report on the 2017 Astros’ sign-stealing dropped on November 12; Beltrán, who had been an outfielder on the team, was named as a person of interest in the investigation on November 13; he tried to modulate the brushback with a breezy read of the disaster on November 14. “I’m not concerned,” he wrote in a text message to the New York Post. “There’s nothing illegal about studying your opposite team.” (Quite the artfully worded line.) As information continued to leak over the next two months, Beltrán’s position grew more delicate and less certain, and now we’re here: Of the three managers named in MLB’s official report on the Astros’ sign-stealing—Beltrán, AJ Hinch and Alex Cora—Beltrán is the only one to still have his job. And he may lose it yet.
The Mets face a question more intricate than those answered by the Astros and Red Sox. Houston’s was relatively easy: Should you fire a manager who’s just been slapped with a year-long suspension for overseeing a historic cheating scandal? (If you have to ask…) Boston’s was somehow even easier: Should you fire a manager who was singled out in a league report for his behavior as a coach with his former club, with the punishment forthcoming, as the league took time to finish its investigation into his behavior with you? (That one’s not “if” so much as “when.”) And here are the Mets: Should you fire your brand-new manager after he’s been singled out in a league report for his actions as a player? (Well…)
The Astros’ and Red Sox’ questions could find the same answer through several different lines of reasoning: ethics, public relations, performance. There was a case to fire Hinch and Cora because the situation had created questions about their managerial choices, or because keeping them would create significant public and media pressure to do the opposite, or because there would all sorts of tension and distractions for the team otherwise. There was a case to fire them simply because of the cheating. There was a case to fire them because it had all been too much.
For the Mets, however, these varied lines of reasoning are not guaranteed to meet at the same place. The ethics hold: Beltrán did not simply oversee cheating, he actively participated in it, which should say something about his ethical code insofar as baseball is concerned. There is not much to debate there. To fire him would not be to punish him for his actions as a player so much as it would be to state a basic refusal to work with someone who chose to brazenly fiddle with the integrity of the game. But ethics are not always a primary consideration for teams in these decisions, and, anyway, there are other ways to spin it.
Beltrán was involved as a player rather than as a coach; that can work both for him, in that the behavior isn’t automatically linked to his judgement as a manager, and against him, in that it means he is the only one of the three who directly took a personal role in cheating. MLB’s report described the scheme as specifically “player-driven,” stating the players were not penalized only because it would have been “difficult and impractical,” not because they lacked evidence that at least a few could have deserved it. (And if “a few” is nebulous, it’s almost certain that this would have included Beltrán, who was the only player mentioned by name by MLB, reportedly in part because he was “a central figure.”) Which puts the Mets in a more difficult situation than the Red Sox or Astros: There will be no league discipline to rely on as a justification here. They won’t be backed into a corner. The decision has to be their own, and it’s a real decision, in a sense greater and stickier than Boston’s and Houston’s.
It would be inconvenient to fire Beltrán, of course. Mid-January is not exactly the best time to go looking for a new manager. That’s probably especially true for a franchise that’s so unfortunately synonymous with slapstick. (“Is it better to fire your new manager before he ever gets a chance to manage or to not fire your new manager in the face of a scandal that will likely linger for months?” could easily be the set-up to a cruel punchline about Mets-ian farce, were it not an actual valid note here.) Add in the further inconvenience that if he’s fired, the team will likely have to pay the salary for not one, not two, but three managers in 2020 (Beltrán, Mickey Callaway and whoever comes next).
But there are factors to consider outside of ethics and convenience. There’s the question of whether it could affect how players view and trust him. There’s the question of whether the team feels that it can trust him. (When Beltrán told the Post that he was “not concerned” and had done “nothing illegal,” did he tell the Mets the same thing?) These are questions not about the morality of what he did as a player or the optics of how it will look to the industry. They’re about Beltrán’s basic ability to do his job.
The answer will say something about the priorities of the franchise. And, given the choices, no matter which side it comes down, it will feel absurdly and inevitably Mets.