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Same as the Old Bruce

“You there in the orange and blue jammies, wake up,” Old Man Winter urged me Wednesday night. “The Mets are bringing in a big-name everyday player.”

I rubbed the sleep from eyes and asked for whom my and my team’s hibernation should be so rudely interrupted.

“Jay Bruce,” Old Man Winter said. “The Mets are signing Bruce for three years, $39 million [1].

“Oh,” I said, “I’ve heard of him. Great. Wonderful. Amazin’, even.”

Then I rolled over and resumed my regularly scheduled slumber, already in progress.

Welcome back, my friends, to the offseason that never ends and doesn’t seem to go anywhere — and welcome back to the Met you might not have noticed was ever gone.

I’m very happy to have Jay Bruce on the Mets again. Well, “very” might be overstating it. So might “happy”. Substitute “vaguely” for “very” and “pleased” for “happy,” and now we’re getting somewhere, much the same as Bruce is getting back to where he once belonged. Jay continues to filter in and out of our consciousness like the weekly mailer with the local supermarket circulars. We never requested it, it’s fine that it comes, when it doesn’t we don’t notice. Except the circulars were never talked up for months as one of our potential prime reading options.

Bruce was one of the big free agents out there. You can only shop the stores that are open. The Bruce Mart was one of them. Can’t go to Waldbaum’s anymore. Can’t go to Pathmark. The mailer doesn’t include enough coupons to make the Manny Machado Market worth more than a fleeting glance.

“Hey how do the Jay Bruce at-bats look today?”

“They’re ripe. And available. And supposedly really good in the clubhouse!”

“Uh-huh. Which aisle are the second basemen in?”

If the Mets had never traded for Jay Bruce at the dawn of August 2016, that theoretically would have been swell. If the Mets had attracted a decent package in exchange for Jay Bruce last winter, I’d have been OK with it in the moment. Had the Mets held on to Jay Bruce for the whole of 2017, I really wouldn’t have complained. Had Jay Bruce found greener pastures elsewhere in his abandoned quest for more green, more power to the power-hitting rightfielder/first baseman, I probably would have thought before nodding off.

But we got him; we kept him; we traded him to Cleveland; and we’ve convinced him to return. All of those were okey-dokey actual outcomes. He definitely did some hitting for us, and, based on the concept of precedent, he figures to do some more for us. Contrary to popular perception, the native Texan and erstwhile professional Ohioan is apparently cool with inhabiting among New Yorkers. Considering that Bruce is essentially bumping a mop handle with a pumpkin head on the provisionally Confortoless Mets depth chart, he’s surely an upgrade over the status quo and constitutes a striking comp for what the Mets fairly recently used to have, namely Jay Bruce.

The Mets grew exceedingly hot while Bruce chilled to ice-cold down the stretch in 2016. With him producing legit homer and ribbie numbers in 2017, the Mets played .450 ball. Without him their pace sank to about .400. Embedded within that trajectory, the prodigal son perhaps looms as an impact player. We sometimes suggest this precise course of action — trade the impending free agent, get something for him, sign him again. That never seems to happen. It did this time.

In this adaptation of the watchable if inane football film Draft Day, Jay Bruce is our Brian Drew, the perfectly decent and familiar veteran quarterback who Browns fans and management all at once decide is preferable to the potential hotshot rookie Cleveland can nab with the first pick. The resolution isn’t all that exciting in the movie and it may not be all that exciting in Flushing. Exciting was the Wild Card race of ’16 and the idea of adding Bruce’s bat to it. Everybody you’ve heard of is more exciting when we haven’t seen all that much of them.

But signing Bruce when nobody is signing anybody is surely something, and somethingness is something else these barren days. Beats nothing, which has been the defining get of the last few weeks of winter, with minor league righty reliever Drew Gagnon [2] a close second. Gagnon, lately in the Angels organization, joins seven other minor league righty relievers snapped up by the Mets since July, one of them for Bruce, on the off chance you’d lost track of Ryan Ryder. The plan for distant-future world domination via bullpenning continues to unfold below radar, while the Mets and Bruce briefly fly above it.

As fashionable as it’s been to note the Mets are shall we say low-keying their roster improvement program, no team has been going nuts signing players. The Marlins dumped a couple on willing recipients, and there have been blips of activity on both coasts, but Old Man Winter’s been mostly napping through baseball conversations. I’ve seen 2017-18 compared to the collusive offseason of 1986-87 (when a free agent class that included future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Jack Morris was barely courted), yet the one I’m put in mind of is 1994-95, which was the strike winter, when now and then you’d hear about a trade, then hear it wasn’t valid because everything was in limbo. The Mets traded for Houston’s Pete Harnisch that November, yet it didn’t kick in on paper until April. Baseball was shut so tight that winter that you started to forget it existed.

Baseball’s not enduring visible labor strife (thank goodness), but everybody who makes announcements about free agents and such seems to have walked off the job. It’s been less quiet than it has been stone mute. The Mets filling their post-Bruce void with Bruce landed for a few minutes like trading for Gary Carter in December of ’84. Then it went back to getting Jay Bruce, which we do approximately every seventeen months. Maybe we’ll get another player before the next snow falls and melts, but I don’t want to seem greedy.

Bruce’s return to the fold makes Jay a member of our exclusive Brokeback Mountain club, comprised of those Mets who just can’t quit us. Should he take the field on March 29 at rechristened Jay Stadium, Bruce will officially become the 44th Recidivist Met. The Mets Jay joined in 2016 were fueled by Recidivism — Kelly Johnson, Jose Reyes and (on the same day Bruce was secured from Cincy), Jon Niese all came home, so to speak, and helped haul our slumping asses to the Wild Card; Johnson and Reyes more than Niese…and more than Bruce.

If you peer past the current endless offseason, you’ll make out Jay coming in third in terms of shortest pauses between Met tenures. His last game with us, on August 9, was the 111th of 2017, meaning the gap between Bruceian appearances projects as 52 Mets games played in his absence. Fleeting Angel (and high school football legend) Kirk Nieuwenhuis is second on the list, boomeranging back to the Mets after a 45-game hiatus in 2015. Greg McMichael was quickest to decontaminate, needing only 32 games to stop being a Dodger in 1998 and resume being a Met.

Johnson will now be tied for fourth on the list, with 60 games breaching his Metsiness, which is worth mentioning here in light of whom he’s tied with, the original Recidivist Met, Frank Lary. Lary pitched for the very last time in our uniform on July 31, 1964…until he pitched in our uniform again on April 12, 1965. In between, he was a Milwaukee Brave, for about as long as Bruce was a Tribesman. Before long, he’d be a Chicago White Sock. Upon his passing at the age of 87 [3] on December 14, Lary was remembered mainly as a Detroit Tiger and by his most lovely nickname: the Yankee Killer. But to us he’ll always be the guy who was the first to realize he could come home again.

The track record for Recidivist Mets indicates most of them are at the peak of their appeal when word comes down that their odyssey is complete. “Yay, he’s back!” Then, with a few exceptions among the 43 cases on file, it doesn’t much pan out. The other semi-relevant winter precedent floating in my mind is 2001-02, specifically the segment devoted to Recidivizing, in separate transactions, Roger Cedeño and Jeromy Burnitz. Cedeño was a key component of the beloved ’99 fight & drama corps. Burnitz had blossomed into a bona fide slugger upon his departure from our midst while the ’94 strike dragged. In conjunction with the trades for Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn, the reacquisitions of Cedeño and Burnitz were seen as too perfect.

They were. The whole thing was that winter. Nobody ever said a dynamic offseason necessarily leads to an excellent season. Not that a little more dynamism wouldn’t be welcome right around now. Sure there aren’t any second basemen down this aisle?

Thanks to Stuart Hack of the Hack Attack on Sports [4] for having me on his radio show earlier this week to discuss “Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star” and other matters of Met memory.