'A good day' for Mendoza as new team meets (and beats) old

March 5th, 2024

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The batting cage at Clover Park on Tuesday was a hub of activity. Carlos Mendoza stood around it at one point, greeting all his old Yankees friends. Mendoza had spent 15 years in that organization before joining the Mets this offseason as their manager. His ties to the Bronx run deep.

But it wasn’t just Mendoza. Former Mets manager Luis Rojas was also present in his role as Yankees third-base coach. New center fielder Harrison Bader spent time catching up with ex-teammates and coaches on the other side. Former Mets general manager Omar Minaya made the rounds as well, chatting up folks in his job as a Yankees senior baseball operations advisor. He was trailed by another former manager, Terry Collins, who lives in Port St. Lucie and came to watch the game. Even ex-Mets hitting coach Pat Roessler, now an assistant with the Yankees, was there.

Handshakes and hugs proliferated. This was still an interborough rivalry, with 7,626 fans showing up for it -- the largest crowd at Clover Park since 2016, the year after the Mets won the National League pennant. But it was also Spring Training, a relatively casual time of year. Mendoza and friends were happy to reconnect.

“I didn’t know what to expect and what the feeling was going to be like,” Mendoza said. “Once you’ve spent your whole career with one organization, [there are] a lot of relationships, familiar faces, a lot of guys I have a lot of respect for. It was a good day.”

For the final five years of his tenure with the Yankees, Mendoza served as Aaron Boone’s bench coach -- an experience that offered him the last bits of experience he would need to become a manager himself. On occasion, Mendoza even filled in to lead the Yankees, such as when Boone took a leave of absence to address a heart condition in 2021.

When the Mets asked Mendoza to interview for their own managerial vacancy in November, Boone became a constant source of advice. The two spoke often as opportunities arose in Queens and elsewhere. While Boone declined to get into specifics, he offered Mendoza what guidance he could on the job -- both managing in general and managing in New York.

“He’s totally equipped to do all of this,” was Boone’s assessment.

Midway through his first Spring Training, Mendoza has certainly looked the part, seeming at ease with players, with coaches, with the media. Before greeting his old boss and others around the batting cage Tuesday, Mendoza spent time hitting fly balls to his outfielders as the Mets took full infield and outfield practice -- a point of pride for the fundamentally driven Mendoza. In private conversations, Mendoza’s former colleagues offered nothing but praise for him.

“Sounds like it’s going well,” Boone said. “Obviously, he forged deep relationships in our organization.”

“Many times you don’t realize those relationships, they really do last forever,” added Bader.

Asked before the game about his old club, Mendoza said all the right things, noting how much he wants to beat the Yankees now that he’s on the other side. Although Mendoza left his former franchise on about the friendliest terms possible, it’s his job to topple whatever team happens to be in his path. He takes that charge seriously, even during Spring Training. The days of George Steinbrenner losing his cool because of a string of Spring Training losses may be over, but this interborough rivalry will always exist.

Mendoza is a part of that now in ways he previously was not. His first taste came Tuesday, and it proved to be a success: a 5-4 win for the Mets.

“There’s competition -- especially the Mets and the Yankees,” Mendoza said. “Even though it’s a Spring Training game, and we’re not going to make too much out of a Spring Training game, once the game starts, it’s about beating them. That’s the mentality here.”

“I don’t know how they view the Mets,” he added with a smile. “I know how I view the Yankees. I want to beat them.”