Have you ever seen anything like Jay Bruce? Once, maybe. Like most precedents, it’s inexact. Unlike most precedents, this one had physical proximity going for it.
On Wednesday night — a night when the Mets’ starting pitcher pitched into the eighth instead of the fifth and the Mets’ manager used three relievers instead of all of them — Bruce let loose with a pair of home runs that accounted for five runs batted in and exquisite timing. The first clout, in the sixth, turned the score at Citi Field from an irritating Phillies 2 Mets 0 to a jubilant Mets 3 Phillies 2. The second, in the eighth, unlocked a 3-3 deadlock and put the Mets up, 5-3. Jay thought of everything, including breathing room for the inevitable post-Gsellman bullpen blip that made it 5-4. That was a final we could handle, just as the Bruce trade is a transaction we can bring ourselves to embrace.
Remember when we were wary of acquiring Jay Bruce last year and no better than resigned to keeping him this year? No, me neither. We all loved Jay Bruce being on the Mets starting with the moment it became counterproductive not to.
Bruce is productive. Other Met hitters are sporadic. A couple are dinged up — contusions of the wrist (d’Arnaud) and hyperextended elbows (Duda) are all the rage this spring — but only one lately seems prone to produce dingers, plural. That’s the Jay Hey Kid, as we’ve been calling him ever since I wrote the first part of this sentence.
If breathless cable news talking heads applied their talents to baseball, they’d declare that Jay Bruce launching those missiles is when he became president. But I’m not concerned with presidents here. I’m thinking precedents. Precedent for Bruce entered my headspace once Bruce’s bombs cleared Citi Field airspace. It helped that I had moments earlier been sharing actual space with another Met from another administration, though in my head, all Met time is continuous and encompassing. The Met whose example Jay was following without even knowing it was Todd Zeile, last seen swinging for a fence in these parts in 2004.
Why, you may wonder, am I bringing up Zeile a Home Run Baker’s dozen years later?
Let me count the whys:
• Zeile, like Bruce, was a run-producing veteran — five seasons of 90+ RBIs — who nevertheless didn’t receive much of a honeymoon period in the wake of his Met arrival. Todd dared replace the universally adored John Olerud when Olerud left (or was allowed to leave) for Seattle prior to 2000. Olerud was intrinsic to the dynamism of the 1999 Mets. The Mets could have brought in 1938 Hank Greenberg to succeed him and fans like me would have experienced a post-Olerud letdown.
• Zeile, like most of us, wasn’t Hank Greenberg. Or John Olerud. It might have taken a while to appreciate that Zeile being Zeile, like Bruce being Bruce, could help keep a good team going. The 2000 Mets were the first Flushing edition in fourteen years to go to the World Series. They got there with a first baseman who played 153 games, hit 22 homers and contributed greatly to the reassuring sense that his club usually knew what it was doing and — if nobody screwed up too badly — was sooner or later gonna figure out a way to win.
• Zeile, like Bruce if not most of us, had a game in which he homered twice and drove in five runs to account for all the Mets’ scoring and claim responsibility for the Mets winning. It happened for Todd in 2004 in a situation similar enough to Wednesday night’s. On June 2 of that season, at Citizens Bank Park, Todd came up with two out in the eighth, the Mets trailing Philly, 3-0. Vance Wilson was on third, Kaz Matsui on second. Zeile worked Ryan Madson to a full count. The end result wasn’t a walk, but a game-tying homer. Two innings later, the score was still tied, there were again two outs and Karim Garcia was on second. The pitcher in this encounter was Roberto Hernandez. The slugger once more was Zeile, who belted the future Met reliever’s two-one delivery out of sight and put the Mets up, 5-3, which would become the tenth-inning final. According to research I did a while back, the only previous case of a pair of Met home runs springing forth from the same bat that late and doing quite that kind of prodigious damage happened in 1967 at Shea, when Jerry Buchek walloped a three-run homer in the eighth and another three-run homer in the tenth to beat the Astros, 8-5. (Jerry blossoms were in full bloom that night.)
• But I suppose the most compelling reason I found myself thinking of Zeile while Bruce was enjoying his best Mets game to date was Todd was standing a few feet from where I was jumping for Jay. We were both in the SNY suite at Citi Field. One of us is probably invited to ballpark suites often. The other of us was not only happy just to be there but delighted to be given a couple of middle innings to watch the game with an authentic 2000 National League Champion New York Met.
Zeile does some work for SNY, so his presence wasn’t accidental let alone incidental. I was there because SNY reached out to a bunch of bloggers and such, which alone was delightful, given the spiffy accommodations (heated, with a 100% chance of Shake Shack and, oh yes, the Mets playing baseball directly in front of us). The fellow who set the whole thing up, an above-and-beyond director of communications named Kevin Sornatale, is to be commended for his outreach efforts. The suiteness, at field level behind home plate, was utterly fantastic.
Watching with and talking to Zeile for half an hour was above and beyond.
My main impression of Todd Zeile, sixteen seasons a major leaguer, was this was a baseball player who really felt the game. Still does, thirteen years after we last saw him, circling the bases against the about-to-be-extinct Expos in his and their final moments on the field. I love how his experiences have stayed with him, how, depending what he is asked, he is again…
a young catcher fiercely proud of his defense;
a converted third baseman, if not necessarily of his own volition;
a hardened professional who earned the right to be a little cynical about the business of sport;
a chronic trade-deadline target who learned to deal with being dealt;
a playoff junkie whose jones for another trip to October led him to New York on the cusp of the new century;
a determined competitor who can recite what went wrong in a long-ago playoff chase that didn’t quite work out;
a true romantic determined not to waste his last time ever batting drawing a walk (so he swung at a pitch up in his eyes and homered for the ultimate Toddy Ballgame moment);
and, with eleven MLB identities from which to choose, a Met in his heart. Zeile acknowledged his Cardinal roots, but said that everything about the Mets feels like family to him, and clearly he relishes the sense that he is at home within its hearth.
I like to say “we” when it comes to the Mets, fully cognizant of my conspicuous absence within the listings of Baseball-Reference. So I asked Todd what a player with more than 7,500 at-bats thinks of amateurs like me opting for the first-person plural to describe his team. It’s all right, he told me. When he’s on the air as an ideally neutral analyst, wearing a suit instead of a uniform, he hears himself saying “we,” too. Todd said he puts himself in “the Mets fan category” as much as any of the rest of us, no quotation-marks required.
One thing is markedly different in his wing of the family, though. When Bruce sent his second home run into orbit, every one of us Mets fans populating SNY’s suite leapt and screamed and high-fived. Every one of us but one. I turned and snuck a glance at Zeile. He just watched and knew. He didn’t have to cheer Jay Bruce. He had already been Jay Bruce.
Todd Zeile played with Mike Piazza in Los Angeles, Florida and New York. One of those periods is examined pretty closely in this book right here.