Just when you thought you’d never again see a 1998 Met in the big leagues — no one who knew the rare pleasure of dressing in the same clubhouse as Tony Phillips, Ralph Milliard, Todd Haney, Willie Blair and Jorge Fabregas — up stepped Jay Payton to emerge as this season’s Longest Ago Met Still Active (LAMSA).
It got close there for five months, and it didn’t look like anyone would materialize to fill the about-to-be eternal void, but then again Jay always was something of a slow starter.
Payton bided his time this season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, recovering from shoulder surgery that kept him out all of 2009. Sound familiar? That was the unfair and unfortunate story of Payton’s oft-delayed rise through the Mets’ minor league system. He was a sandwich pick in the 1994 draft but didn’t reach the bigs until the rosters were expanded on September 1, 1998, and didn’t stick for good until the beginning of the 2000 season. He didn’t do much till June and didn’t really kick it in gear until August. But there Jay Payton was throughout October, starting center fielder in every game of the postseason for the National League champs.
Metwise, Payton peaked in his official rookie year (ranking third in N.L. voting), suffering yet another injury in 2001 and being sent packing at the trade deadline in 2002 for rotation stabilizer John Thomson. The Mets were 4½ games from the Wild Card lead when Payton left. Bolstered by Thomson, they finished approximately a hundred games out. Cause-and-effect or coincidence? Hard to say.
Jay took well to Coors Field — hit .473 there in 2002, .321 in 2003 — but then made the mistake of leaving as a free agent. He wandered through San Diego, Boston, Oakland and Baltimore before his right shoulder took him off the major league map in 2009. Last year, while Payton was rehabbing (“I didn’t want an injury to be the reason why I quit the game”), there were no 1998 Mets in MLB captivity. It escaped our notice since we were properly Metsmerized that there was still a 1997 Met — Jason Isringhausen — active as well as two 1995 and 1996 Mets — Izzy and Paul Byrd.
Those pitchers are done, but Payton, 37, is lately back in Denver, gray beard and all (how is it I’m 47, yet 37, when applied to a ballplayer, sounds old?). We congratulate him on his perseverance and I thank him personally for the events of September 13, 2000, when I was working just north of Astor Place and not particularly loving it. There was a day game at Shea and I took one of my curiously timed long lunches so I could go off somewhere sunny and listen to the broadcast in peace. A late-afternoon meeting loomed, but I willfully ignored it as long as I could so I could sit on a bench and stay tuned through a compelling pitchers duel: Mike Hampton vs. Jeff D’Amico. Hampton was good (8 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 7 SO, 1 ER), future Met D’Amico slightly better (8 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 10 SO, 0 ER).
D’Amico gave way to Curt Leskanic to start the ninth. Jay Payton doubled to lead off and, two outs later, scored on a Robin Ventura double. No way I could go back to the office now. I gave myself the tenth to see what would happen before giving in to the realities of office life. After Armando Benitez escaped the top of the inning unscathed, the Mets faced ex-Amazin’ Juan Acevedo. With one out, Mike Bordick singled to center; Joe McEwing did the same. Bubba Trammell popped up for the second out.
Then Jay Payton and…BOOM!
Three-run homer! The Mets win 4-1 and solidify their Wild Card lead. I am exultant in Washington Square Park, where shouting and giving phantom high-fives won’t draw any undue attention. Then I reluctantly race back for my meeting, floating from walkoff-winning and dragging from the realization I can’t sit outside any longer on a perfect end-of-summer day and luxuriate in Mets Extra.
I’m still on the mailing list for the magazine I edited in those days and a couple of the changes I suggested at that meeting ten years ago are still in effect. When an issue shows up here, I leaf through it disinterestedly, but sometimes I notice a section title I named in 2000 and think back not to the dreary meeting that birthed them but the tense day game that preceded it. Maybe Jay Payton inspired my apparent abiding brilliance. Or maybe I just like thinking about better Met Septembers than this one.
Chase Field in Phoenix served this week as LAMSA Hall, where the four Longest Ago Mets Still Active congregated for an impromptu Bobby Valentine Era reunion. The Rockies were fighting for their playoff lives with Payton, Melvin Mora (Met debut: May 30, 1999) and recent addition Octavio Dotel (Met debut: June 26, 1999) in purple and black. In the Arizona bullpen, Dotel tradee Mike Hampton (Met debut: March 29, 2000) stood ready to turn around switch-hitters and thwart lefties as needed.
Wednesday night, Mora staked Colorado to an early 3-0 lead on a shot over the left field wall, but the Rox couldn’t make it stand up; they were trailing 5-4 when Hampton — who, like Payton, seemed so done in the face of multiple injuries that he was available to join a half-dozen retired 2000 teammates at a Mets Alumni event in May — came on in the eighth and struck out leadoff batter Dexter Fowler. He also sounded like Payton when he was called up from Reno early this month: “I’m not ready to give it up, not ready to quit — it’s never been an option.”
Funny thing about those prime-time (1997-2001) Bobby Valentine Mets: the best of them never did quit easily, did they? If you’d like a tenth-anniversary reminder of their cheerfully obstinate nature, you are advised to check out Matthew Callan’s delightfully evocative In the Year 2000 series on Amazin’ Avenue.
Meanwhile, a look at where Jay Payton fits in on the LAMSA timeline…
LONGEST AGO MET STILL ACTIVE: Chronology
• Felix Mantilla, debuted as a Met, 4/11/1962; last game in the major leagues, 10/2/1966
• Al Jackson, 4/14/1962; 9/26/1969
• Chris Cannizzaro, 4/14/1962*; 9/28/1974
• Ed Kranepool, 9/22/1962; 9/30/1979
• Tug McGraw, 4/18/1965; 9/25/1984
• Nolan Ryan, 9/11/1966; 9/22/1993
• Jesse Orosco, 4/5/1979; 9/27/2003
• John Franco, 4/11/1990; 7/1/2005
• Jeff Kent, 8/28/1992; 9/27/2008
• Jason Isringhausen**, 7/17/1995; 6/13/2009
• Paul Byrd**, 7/28/1995; 10/3/2009
• Jay Payton**, 9/1/1998; 9/23/2010 (current)
* Cannizzaro was Jackson’s catcher on April 14, 1962, at the Polo Grounds, so for LAMSA purposes, he debuted as a Met after his pitcher.
**For much of 2009 and 2010 — with Isringhausen injured, Byrd sitting out and Payton working his way back — Melvin Mora (5/30/1999) held what turned out to be interim LAMSA status. As we learned first-hand in August, the 38-year-old Mora, despite striking out to end a furious Rockies comeback Thursday night, is as ageless as his most magical Met moment is timeless.
Complementing the Longest Ago Met Still Active designation is Last Met Standing: the final player from each Met season to wear a major league uniform in game action. Who had the longevity to outlast all his former teammates from a given year?
Let’s find out…
LAST MET STANDING: 1962-1998
1962-1964: Ed Kranepool (final MLB game: 9/30/1979)
1965: Tug McGraw (9/25/1984)
1966: Nolan Ryan (9/22/1993)
1967: Tom Seaver (9/19/1986)
1968-1971: Nolan Ryan (9/22/1993)
1972-1975: Tom Seaver (9/19/1986)
1976-1977: Lee Mazzilli (10/7/1989; ALCS)
1978: Alex Treviño (9/30/1990)
1979: Jesse Orosco (9/27/2003)
1980: Hubie Brooks (7/2/1994)
1981-1987: Jesse Orosco (9/27/2003)
1988-1989: David Cone (5/28/2003)
1990-1991: John Franco (7/1/2005)
1992-1994: Jeff Kent (9/27/2008)
1995-1996: Paul Byrd (10/3/2009)
1997: Jason Isringhausen (6/13/2009)
1998: Jay Payton (9/23/2010; current)
Still to be determined is who will be the Last Met Standing from the seasons immediately following 1998. The candidates come from those onetime Mets who played in the major leagues in 2010:
1999: Mora, Dotel, Payton
2000: Hampton, Mora, Payton
2001: Payton, Bruce Chen
The 2002 Mets, as generally disgraceful as they were, still managed to spawn a surprising number of major league survivors who have demonstrated staying power clear to this season: Payton; Chen; the regrettable Gary Matthews, Jr.; Scott Strickland (after a five-year absence); Ty Wigginton, Tyler Walker (whose five-game stint eight years ago completely escapes my usually airtight memory); Marco Scutaro; and the last Bobby Valentine Met to remain a Met as we prepare to end the Jerry Manuel era, Pedro Feliciano. Since Feliciano, 34, is a lefty, we can assume that if he remains healthy, he will remain employed by somebody somewhere for quite a while longer. Thus, that 2002 75-86 banner should fly safely from Pedro’s trusty left hand for not a few years to come.
2003 brought Jose Reyes to the big leagues, while 2004 saw the debut of David Wright. If we’re groping around for the last 2003 and 2004 Mets any sooner than the end of this decade at the earliest, then there’s something very wrong with the world.