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Hoping for Hefner

Congratulations to David Wright, named Mets captain [1] after a distinguished, classy nine years on the field and the usual tatty nine weeks or so of Mets mini-drama, replacing what should have been a couple of hours behind closed doors.

I was briefly amused by Wright’s decision not to wear a captain’s C, as if the Mets uniform is or ever has been an exemplar of understated, classical design. I didn’t pay attention to every pixel and stream yesterday, but it’s somewhere between possible and likely that Wright was talking uniforms while wearing a blinding two-tone cap with a mascot on it.

But then I decided Wright was (w)right, and therein lay a lesson. He exists in a world where the Mets are better than this, from their uniforms to their way of dealing with the media, fans and their own players to their W-L record. At times he has been the only hint that such a world is possible. Yet he sees those possibilities, and has invariably tried to make them realities, whether it’s speaking to one more reporter or being kind to one more kid or playing through one more injury. At the risk of simultaneously grabbing a shopworn phrase and using it for small reasons, he has been the change he wants to see in his baseball world.

And that’s a C anyone can see.

* * *

Yesterday, with the Mets on the field in Port St. Lucie, I found myself thinking about a Met who’s rarely been front and center: Jeremy Hefner.

Hefner just turned 27, and for much of his admittedly short Met career I’ve thought of him as an equally poor man’s Pat Misch, which is mean but didn’t seem off the mark. Hefner’s been one of those guys with a lot of pitches — fastball, slider, change — and good command, but no true out pitch. Occasionally guys like that turn out to be Greg Maddux (or Rick Reed), but most of the time they don’t. Most of the time they bounce up and down between roles and levels, settling in as roster-fillers somewhere. You root for them — it’s hard not to — but you also don’t expect them to stick around.

I also pegged Hefner as the Met most likely to express profound relief once he was no longer a Met, based on my first glimpses of him as a devout Oklahoman who was visibly nervous about an in-game interview with Kevin Burkhardt. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with any of those things, but they seemed like a mismatch for New York, and I assumed Hefner would be a lot happier in Texas or St. Louis or Kansas City, where the media aren’t quite so ravenous and the klieg lights aren’t quite so blinding.

But every player who ascends to major-league baseball is both a world-class athlete and a monstrous competitor. And though we can generally tell a lot about a player by their 27th birthday, that crystal ball is not perfect. Sometimes guys figure stuff out. Not many of them, it’s true, but it does happen. A Dillon Gee evades his statistical fortune and becomes a reliable big-league starter. A Ronny Cedeno rethinks his approach at the plate and gets on base. Or recall that when Terry Collins arrived,  a lot of us reviewed his jittery tenure in Anaheim and set our watches for when his freakouts would alienate the Mets. Two years into his time as manager, if anything we’ve criticized Collins for not freaking out at the Mets enough.

But back to Hefner. On a dreary September night he retired not one single Phillie as the Mets got beat by 15, and I was worried about him when he faced the cameras afterwards looking like a cracked egg. Five days later, he went seven innings against the Pirates, holding them to three hits and no runs. Nobody much noticed, but I was impressed. It must be awful to fail horribly at your craft in public, and then to answer a million questions about it and prepare for the next time amid more questions and go out and try again, all in public. That’s pressure I’ll likely never experience, and can’t imagine. Hefner went through it and came out the other side having crafted a satisfying little baseball moral [2].

And this spring? He’s been quite capable — and looked like something of a different pitcher, using an improved cutter to miss bats in bushels.

Word of that cutter will get out, as it does. Hefner could pitch lights-out and still find himself in the pen or in Las Vegas once Johan Santana returns. It’s entirely possible that his March possibilities will be forgotten amid June realities.

But still: Sometimes guys figure stuff out. In forecasting the Mets’ Plan B rotation, the conversation has gone from “or Jeremy Hefner I guess” to “Jeremy Hefner, obviously.” That’s a testament to Hefner’s hard work and a reason to hope — for him and for us.

And after all, isn’t that what spring training’s for?