Six weeks ago, when writing about the Mets signing of Adrian Gonzalez, I suggested that one of the goals of the acquisition was to remind Dominic Smith that first base wasn’t automatically his coming into this season. Despite showing up to spring training looking ready for the challenge, Smith’s benching just prior to the first spring training game may suggest otherwise.
When Dominic Smith arrived in Port St. Lucie earlier this month, he looked much more like the Mets first baseman of the future than when he was called up to the team last year and looked like the team’s first base coach of the future. During the offseason, Smith lost 30 pounds, and while still not svelte, he arrived looking athletic. More importantly, he looked intent on making sure that Adrian Gonzalez’s place as the starting first baseman on this Mets roster was not the lock that many others seemed to believe. Not only did fans recognize this, but so did new Mets manager Mickey Callaway. Gonzalez may have come in with an edge on the competition, but Dominic Smith seemed to arrive with a friendly but competitive chip on his shoulder, and Callaway appeared willing to give him a shot. Last Thursday afternoon, Callaway announced his starting lineup for Friday’s spring training opener against the Atlanta Braves, and right in the middle of it all was the cleanup hitter, first baseman Dominic Smith. This came off as Callaway’s challenge to Smith to show him what he’s got. Then Friday happened…
As someone who has followed the Mets in four different decades, there is a knee-jerk reaction to a player being late to an important, or even semi-important event. So when news came out that Callaway had scratched Smith from the starting lineup because he had shown up late to camp that morning, red flags went up and sirens went off. This is not to suggest that Smith was out late partying hard on Thursday night. This isn’t even to suggest that he was out kind of late partying lightly the night before. According to Smith, he was tardy on Friday morning because he was so excited to be in the lineup that he couldn’t sleep on Thursday night. While I was willing to believe this excuse and even found it somewhat endearing, this just didn’t fly for Callaway.
Callaway’s message to Dominic Smith, and to the other Mets players, and to Mets fans and followers in general, was about more than showing up on time. The message was about more than taking this job seriously. The message that Callaway sent when he benched Dominic Smith in what would have been his first real opportunity to prove himself, was that he expects his players to act like professionals who have “been there”. The young players on this team need to show they belong on a major league roster by acting like they belong on a major league roster. Perhaps it’s a message that the rookie manager is trying to send to himself. On a team full of veterans, Callaway seems to have shown up to camp feeling comfortable with being in-charge. He has talked about the importance of accountability from top to bottom, and in his first real opportunity, he’s proven that he’s a man of his word.
Now it’s Smith’s turn to prove the same. He had a pretty steep hill to climb when the spring training started, and he didn’t do himself any favors before the first game. And while Smith said all the right, albeit clichéd, things when talking to reporters, the Mets and their fans are hopeful that Smith learned an important lesson last week: On Callaway’s Mets, how you carry yourself is going to be about as important as how you play. If Smith doesn’t pick up on this soon, not only will Adrian Gonzalez be the team’s first baseman of the present, but Peter Alonso, the guy who started in Smith’s place on Friday, will be considered the youngster about whom fans should get excited. At least he showed up on time.