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Reinstate Melvin Mora

In February 1998, Al Leiter became a Met. He couldn’t have been happier to join the team he said he rooted hard for during his childhood, which he once referred to as “the Mike Vail years”.

This is really exciting for me. I feel like a little kid.

All it took was Wayne Huizenga dismantling the World Champion Florida Marlins before they could defend their title. Steve Phillips gladly handed over three prospects in exchange for a durable lefty who threw hard and competed like crazy. One Met minor league who went to Miami was Jesus Sanchez, who went on to a Nelson Figueroa-like career in the majors (23-34, 5.32 ERA over seven seasons with four clubs). One was Robert Stratton, a Met first-round pick who would never make it to the big leagues.

And one was 21-year-old A.J. Burnett, described by The New York Times in the wake of Leiter’s acquisition as simply “a righthanded pitcher who has not advanced beyond Class A.”

Al Leiter spent seven seasons as a Met, designated more often than not as our ace, and pitching quite a bit like one. He chalked up 95 wins from 1998 through 2004, sixth-most in team history. When there was a big game to hunt down during the Bobby Valentine era, Al usually seemed to be the man in the middle.

He started the first-ever regular-season Subway Series game at Shea in ’98; the game that halted the seven-game losing streak down the stretch in ’99; the one-game playoff that clinched the Wild Card four days later; the Todd Pratt Game [1] in that year’s NLDS five days after that. He may have never been better or more valiant than he was while pitching into the ninth inning of the final Subway World Series game in 2000. He gave 142 pitches and, I swear, every bit of himself to our lost cause.

There were some noticeable bumps along the way (Game Six in Atlanta [2] on short rest, in particular), but it was mostly good times with Al Leiter on the Mets, at least until all Met times went bad somewhere in 2002. Even accounting for the presence of Mike Piazza, nobody quite fit the description “face of the franchise” in those halcyon Met days like Al Leiter.

In December 2004, Al became an ex-Met. He couldn’t have been less happy and not a whole lot more bitter about it as he returned to the Florida Marlins as a free agent.

I did not want to leave the Mets and I did not want to leave New York. The reason I am leaving is that Omar Minaya did not want me.

Minaya was new as GM and his charge was to make over the Mets, who had steadily fallen from competitive sight since that night in October ’00 when Leiter threw his 142nd pitch at Shea. Out with the old, in with anything that could conceivably distract Mets fans and potential Met customers from the waste case the franchise had become. It was goodbye Leiter one week…

…and hello Pedro Martinez the next week. Pedro would be the new ace on the Mets, effectively replacing Al Leiter as the pitching face of the franchise.

Thursday night, in Game Two [3] of the 2009 World Series, it was a guy traded for Leiter outdueling the guy who essentially took Leiter’s place.

I’ll bet Al noticed. He was always good at that.

No regrets at either end of the Leiter trail. Scooping him up in the post-’97 Marlin fire sale, even if it cost the Mets a live right arm that is now 1-0 in World Series play, was the right move. It took Burnett until this year, his eleventh in the majors, to win as many games in his entire career as Leiter did as a Met. Lefty Al was the right man at the right time. In that same vein, however, his time was up by 2004, and Martinez — no matter the unfortunate twists his Met journey eventually took — was the right man for 2005.

Good to see ex-Mets keeping busy. There was Burnett, making with his silly pies [4] and getting out Phillies. There was Pedro, elevating his stature (particularly in his own mind [5]) and getting out Yankees. There’s Leiter, too, talking a mile a minute on various media outlets in a suit and tie the way he used to in his well-worn Mets uniform after games. Hell, we’ve even had cause to hear from the generally unmissed 1962 Met Don Zimmer [6] in the last week.

Hey, you know which ex-Met will soon be busy looking for a new team? One I’d love to have back.

Melvin Mora is going to be a free agent [7]. For Melvin Mora and the Mets, there is nothing but regret. Melvin Mora was the most super of supersubs in 2000 when he was deployed as our everyday shortstop once Rey Ordoñez went down to injury. Mora was a lousy shortstop. But he was Melvin Mora, hero of the 1999 stretch drive and postseason and darn good-looking player — shortstop shakiness notwithstanding — through the first two-thirds of 2000. Might have he improved in his new full-time position if given two months to straighten out? Might have he been deployed elsewhere as Steve Phillips searched for a better shortstop option?

Did he have to be traded? For Mike Bordick?

I was on the fence when the word came down on July 28, 2000. I loved Mora for everything had done from the moment he singled off Greg Hansell on October 3, 1999 [8] to ignite the rally that won us a Wild Card tie, but I tensed up terribly every time a ground ball came his way at short. I had an idea at the time for what could be a hot new children’s toy: the Bobble Me MelMo. That said, I just assumed he was miscast at short. We could find somewhere else for him in the long-term, couldn’t we?

On the other hand, on the day he was traded, we were deep inside a playoff dogfight with no guarantee we’d make it back in ’00. We needed serenity now at short. My American League avoidance had left me almost completely unaware of Mike Bordick’s tenure, but he was said to have been quite sound. That was good enough for me. The next day, I’m at the Mets game against the Cardinals and Mike Bordick leads off with a homer.

Man, what a great trade!

You know the rest, probably. Bordick, whether he wasn’t physically right or simply didn’t have much left, sucked up his share of ground balls but was an offensive nonentity after that first home run. The Mets would go to the World Series, but Bordick was not well. Some thug Cardinal named Mike James hit him pretty intentionally on his right thumb during the NLCS. It affected Bordick enough so that by Leiter’s valiant Game Five in the World Series, it was Mike Bordick (.125) sitting and Kurt Abbott starting…and not closing the gap between himself and Edgardo Alfonzo when Leiter’s 142nd pitch — barely stroked by Luis Sojo — bounced into centerfield for the two lethal runs that effectively ended our most recent World Series participation.

Bordick never played for the Mets again. Mora just kept on playing for the Orioles. Turns out he was a darn good-looking player and then some. The Orioles moved him off shortstop, eventually making him their everyday third baseman. I had no idea until I read it the other day that he’s played more games than any Oriole at third base besides Brooks Robinson. He drove in more than a hundred runs twice — 104 the year before last — and made the American League All-Star team twice. He ranks in the all-time Top Ten for Baltimore in eight different offensive categories

I knew he had done well for himself, yet I wasn’t aware until checking what an intricate thread he become in the black and orange fabric. In what loomed as his last game as a Bird at the beginning of this October, he came out of the game and was given a standing ovation at Camden Yards. Though amiable about the club not picking up his $8 million option for 2010, he just told [9] the Baltimore Sun, “I wanted to die an Oriole.”

Mora was more an Oriole than Leiter was a Met, probably. Yet to me Melvin Mora’s a Met. He’s been on loan to the O’s all this time in my mind. We gave him away in a somewhat understandable move but one that turned out to be ultimately pointless. I’d love to erase that mistake. I’d love for one of the two 1999 Mets who remain active (Octavio Dotel is the other) to come home. We don’t need him to play third base, obviously, but we could definitely use him somewhere. How could you not use Melvin Mora on the Mets? He could play left field sometimes. He could fill in here and there. He could be the supersub he was in 2000, but older and wiser.

Less mobile? On the downside? An example of sentimentality trumping practicality? Oh, probably. I don’t know. I don’t watch the Orioles. They’re rarely on anywhere. Melvin Mora left a Mets team in the midst of a two-season playoff run and endured for nearly a decade on a team that never made the postseason, never contended, never had as much a winning record. Melvin Mora is not a talisman, exactly. He’s not a franchise player. He’s not going to reverse a 70-92 disaster. He dropped off dramatically in 2009. For all I know, at 38, he’d be the wrong guy at the wrong time in the wrong place.

But, no, I’m not thinking like that at this moment, late October 2009. I hear Melvin Mora’s going to be available and my eyes light up. My heart melts around the edges. I read “Melvin Mora” and I see him scoring on a wild pitch. I see him throwing out Diamondbacks and Braves left, right and center. I remember a walkoff home run against the Brewers. I remember him square in the middle of that ten-running that beat Atlanta. I see Melvin Mora and drift off into 1999 reverie — more than usual, I mean. I crave a position for him in 2010. Emeritus Met, something like that.

A real, live 1999 Met is still playing baseball. How could I not want him?