Any Major League Baseball franchise setting out to hire a pitching coach over 80 years of age would do well to get Phil Regan. He has had a distinguished and improbably eventful life in baseball, and a very long one. Regan’s first big-league manager, in 1960, was Jimmy Dykes, another lifer who made his debut when the starting third baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics was called up for action in World War I; Dykes was born in 1896; he played for Connie Mack, who wore a suit in the dugout.
Regan later earned an All-Star bid and the nickname The Vulture with the Dodgers during a 1966 season in which he routinely swiped wins from teammates like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and finished with a 14-1 record. He was the closer for the Chicago Cubs when they were passed by the Miracle Mets in 1969, and the manager of the Baltimore Orioles in 1995 when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played; he was the first big-league pitching coach that Kerry Wood ever had, and Bartolo Colon’s second. And now, at the age of 82 and for the first time in two decades, Regan is a Major League pitching coach again. He took over the job when the Mets fired Dave Eiland late Thursday afternoon.
You’ll notice that many of Regan’s career achievements are several decades old. The reason for that is that Regan, who had been a roving instructor in the Mets system, has been in a sort of active semi-retirement for some time. He was the pitching coach for the Mets’ team in the high-A Florida State League from 2009 to 2015, at which point he transitioned into a roving role. He is not the sort of person, by all accounts, who will ever stop working in baseball. In 2017, on his 80th birthday, the Mets flew him up to Citi Field to throw batting practice. At the time, Regan was throwing BP every day, more or less as self-care. “There was never a point where I had a sore arm,” Regan told SNY’s Anthony DiComo at the time. “If you just keep doing it, the more you do it, keep doing it, keep doing it day after day—I think Jim Kaat said you’ll rust out before you wear out. That’s probably true.”
It takes nothing away from Regan’s long and distinguished career to say that his hiring as a major-league pitching coach, in 2019, qualifies as Some Extremely Mets Shit. It’s not just that Regan is much older than anyone else currently coaching in the Major Leagues and also a number of eminences who have grayed out of the game in the last decade or so—four years older than Bobby Cox, seven years older than Charlie Manuel, eight years older than Jim Leyland. Jack McKeon, who famously came out of retirement to win a World Series with the Marlins in 2003, was eight years younger than Regan is now when he took that job. When McKeon came back again, for a less successful stint, in 2011, he was two years younger than Regan is now.
So he’s old. But Regan is also beloved in the organization, had a hand in developing the young corps of starting pitchers that stand as the Mets’ primary organizational achievement of the last couple decades, and is reportedly in fantastic physical and intellectual shape for someone his age. Given that the previous regime had been force-feeding pitch mixes to the staff and grinding starters into dust—Noah Syndergaard’s hamstring strain occurred on the 102nd pitch he threw in a game his team was winning 8-3—Regan may also be more forward-thinking than his old-school immediate predecessors. This is a low bar, but these are the Mets. “I think kids today, they want you to be honest,” Regan told the Syracuse Post-Standard earlier this year. “I don’t ever lie to them. I try to come in and not change their whole delivery. I’m not a big believer in doing that, or taking pitches away from them. But there’s a lot of little fundamental things that you have to do as a pitcher. And sometimes a person can see that, maybe just one little thing. Try it, and if you like it stick with it.” That sounds fine! This pretty much covers the caveats.
Now on to the Some Extremely Mets Shit. Beloved and accomplished though he is, no other MLB team would have hired Phil Regan as a pitching coach in 2019. No MLB team has employed him as a pitching coach since 1999, not because he’s bad at the job—he hasn’t done it for two decades at the highest level, but he has never been bad at it—but because Phil Regan is very old, and because best practices tend to change over the course of decades. More to the point, the Mets’ upper management has once again rapidly put the team in a position where it doesn’t really matter much who the pitching coach is.
Some of this is because whoever replaces doomed manager Mickey Callaway after this season will be permitted to hire his own staff. But the bigger problem is that it mostly doesn’t matter who the Mets hire for any on-field position because, as long as the team’s owners overrule and override the executives and on-field staff they hire, the identities or skills or opinions of the people employed in those positions aren’t allowed to matter. None of those people, be they respected lifers like Regan or overmatched greenhorns like Callaway, will be allowed to do their jobs as they might in other organizations.
The very nature of their jobs are different from their counterparts in other organizations, because the Mets are different from other organizations. The Mets owners see the team as a sort of weird yacht, which exists for them to repaint or outfit with new technology or repeatedly ram into large craggy rocks. The managers and coaches and players are not there to steer the ship but to provide in-cruise entertainment—to humor and flatter and amuse and pique the team’s relentlessly meddlesome owners, and then to take the fall for them when those owners’ roundly disproven ideas are disproven again. They are seasonal employees, and only the owners and their bad ideas are permanent.
Well, the problems that ownership creates are also more or less permanent. Principal owner Fred Wilpon is a grimacing barnacle who holds as a central tenet of his worldview that Today’s Players Are Soft and disdains pitch counts; Jeff, his son and the team’s COO, delights in making his players gut out injuries and other feats of armchair machismo. The team’s knack for turning minor injuries into major ones and breaking its young pitching talent can be traced back directly to the well-documented fetishes and legacy idiocies of team’s ownership, and they have not changed even after decades of frustration and failure. If there’s no real baseball-related reason to get upset about the Mets hiring an 82-year-old man to be its pitching coach for the next four months, it’s because there’s no real baseball-related reason for any of this. It’s just something ownership felt like doing.
And now Phil Regan gets to spend the next few months swabbing the deck and listening patiently while the captain complains. It’s reasonable to wonder about how those months of travel and stress might wear on Regan, although they’re also unlikely to be much fun for anyone else involved, either. The pitching might get better but it probably won’t; it’s hard to imagine a way in which any of it would matter much. The issue is not the raw strangeness of bringing in an octogenarian pitching coach but the message that hiring sends. That message is that the people in charge are still very much in charge, still doing what they want without any regard for what successful baseball teams do, and still more interested in pursuing their curdled and quixotic vision of what baseball should be than in chasing the teams ahead of them in the National League East.