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The Man Who Was Untraded

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series [1] in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Aug. 6, 2007 was an off-day for the Mets. The day before, a Mets pitcher who will remain nameless had finally secured his 300th victory, a milestone future generations will note came wearing the wrong uniform. Greg and I celebrated rather tepidly; we were happier about the fact that the Mets were in first place, 4.5 games up on the Atlanta Braves. Those good times wouldn’t last either. In less than two months the season would crash and burn, with that same pitcher enduring a first-inning battering he found disappointing but others of us remember as closer to devastating.

Lost amid the aftermath of the celebration and the preamble to an as-yet-unglimpsed tragedy was an agate-type transaction. The Mets had signed a Venezuelan infielder on his 16th birthday, the first day the new acquisition could sign such a deal. Wilmer Flores [2] was now a professional baseball player.

He was also still a child, one preparing to go far from home, to a country where he didn’t speak the language. Being a homesick 16-year-old without moorings is hard enough; he’d also attempt to make a living playing a famously demanding and deeply unfair sport, in competition for a vanishingly small number of jobs. One day, perhaps, there’d be fame and fortune; for now, there’d be vaguely furnished efficiency apartments with too many roommates and long bus rides and unhealthy fast food and hard work for a pittance.

In 2008 Flores did well enough on the field, hitting over .300 in stints at Kingsport, Brooklyn and Savannah. But off the field he was miserable; at the end of the season he told Tony Bernazard [3], the Mets’ VP of player development, that he wanted to go home. Bernazard would eventually lose his job for an excess of tough love; this day, he supplied the right amount. He told Flores no.

The next year Flores, still just 17, reported to Savannah and resolved to learn English. He watched the news with a dictionary in hand, which helped. But what helped more was watching episodes of “Friends.” [4] He learned English, and stopped feeling so alone, by watching the misadventures of Ross and Rachel, Monica and Phoebe, Chandler and Joey as they navigated the city where he hoped to play one day. Years later, Flores’ walk-up music would be the Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You,” better known as the “Friends” theme. Fans at Citi Field thought that was cute and joined in on the clap-clap-clap-clap-claps; few had any idea what that jingle meant to Flores, and in how many ways it had helped him get to where he was.

Flores made the big leagues in 2013 — called up on his 22nd birthday, the sixth anniversary of his signing. The new kid, most notable for looking about 12, quickly gave us a preview of his time in New York. On his first day in the big leagues, he went 0-for-4 and made an error; on his second day, he collected three RBIs with a bases-clearing double. (And while his signature moments would come later, those who like such classifications can record him as 2013’s A Met for All Seasons.)

Flores was 22, looked 12, and ran like he was 52. He seemed uncertain in the field, making physical errors and sometimes going saucer-eyed in the heat of the moment. The Mets would move him around the infield, looking for a place to hide him and never finding one.

Not exactly a recipe for success, but Flores could hit — in fact, he destroyed lefties. He showed a knack for big moments, which he’d eventually ride to a niche in the Mets’ record books. And while baseball players are taught to be stoic and stone-faced, as armor against the game’s cruelties, Flores’s emotions were always front and center. When he succeeded, he radiated joy; when he failed, he was accompanied by a little black cloud of misery. You sometimes wondered how the Mets should best use Flores, or if they should at all, but you always rooted for him. It was impossible not to.

Flores was up and down between Citi Field and the minors in 2014 but made the Opening Day roster in 2015, installed at shortstop in what seemed like an act of desperation bordering on cruelty. It didn’t go well; Flores made three errors in the first week while hitting .158, a sensitive player laboring through a public ordeal. But he then hit .364 over his next nine games, a very Floresian outcome that made you think that maybe, just maybe, he could outhit his own defense.

And the 2015 Mets needed all the hitting they could get — they were a perplexing team, with great arms repeatedly undone by anemic bats. At least that was the case until late July, when Sandy Alderson overhauled the team in a frantic rush. He summoned Michael Conforto [5], the next bright hope of a future no one thought had arrived yet. He brought in Juan Uribe [6] and Kelly Johnson [7] and Tyler Clippard [8], a trio of battle-tested mercenaries.

And, on July 29, during a game against the Padres, he traded Wilmer Flores to the Brewers.

Flores was sent away along with Zack Wheeler [9] for Carlos Gomez [10], who’d zoomed around Shea Stadium’s outfield as a giddy young colt of a player but would arrive at Citi Field as a marquee hitter and clubhouse leader. The deal was done, complete with snapshots of a smiling Gomez on a plane, getting a sendoff from his now-former Brewer teammates. The news rocketed around Twitter, reached the Mets’ radio and TV booths, and winged its way through the Citi Field stands. And thanks to fans with cellphones in the fancy seats, it reached Flores in the Mets’ dugout.

The strange thing was that the just-traded Flores batted anyway, grounding out meekly as fans in the know cheered by way of farewell, and then went out to his position in the field. That doesn’t happen in baseball — players cost too much money to risk having an injury unravel a trade. The reaction in the stands and the booths was incredulity. Were the Mets really so strapped for personnel that they’d buck tradition and good sense?

And then, horribly, we saw that Flores’s face was a mask of shock, his eyes glassy and red. His movements were tentative and uncertain — a step this way, then that way, looking for comfort that couldn’t be found. He was crying on the field, which was hard enough to watch. What was harder was that he was spending his final, miserable moments as a New York Met on public display. The Mets had been Flores’s family since he was 16, a constant during a wrenching adjustment; what should have been a private moment would become cheap grist for the cynical mills of sports-talk boors. Cue a million Tom Hanks clips, and never mind what that would do to the young man who’d committed the cardinal sin of showing emotion over losing the life he’d worked so hard to build.

Except, somehow, the trade came undone. Alderson said there was no deal; Terry Collins [11] fulminated about modernity; Wilmer Flores remained a Met. (Having missed out on Gomez, the team would eventually land Yoenis Cespedes [12].)

Flores, mercifully, was given July 30 off. But he was at shortstop the next day as the Mets faced off against the Washington Nationals, kings of the N.L. East. Flores, still looking a bit stunned, was given standing ovations for everything he did. The game would go to the 12th tied 1-1, one of those contests in which you’ve bitten your nails down to the quick by the third and by the sixth you’ve started gnawing on your actual fingers.

Wilmer Flores heads for home [13]Flores led off the bottom of the inning and got a 1-1 fastball from Felipe Rivero. It was 95 MPH but flat, catching too much of the plate. Flores hammered it into the Party City deck [14]. The Mets had won and a cult hero, already born, was immortalized. The delights of 2015 were just beginning — there’d be the Cespedes-fueled rocket ride, Daniel Murphy [15]‘s brief transformation into Babe Ruth [16] and Jackie Robinson [17], David Wright [18] redemptive victory lap, and the pitching heroics of Matt Harvey [19] and Jacob deGrom [20] and Noah Syndergaard [21]. But it all started with Wilmer Flores in despair after being traded and in ecstacy after being untraded. That was the first moment in which the impossible became not just possible but somehow expected.

You know, of course, that those Cinderella Mets left the ball princeless and in rags — they played 12 weeks of scintillating baseball when they needed to play 13. Flores was at the plate at the very end, looking at a called third strike from Wade Davis [22] in a 12th inning that not even his magic could fix. He missed the 2016 wild-card game, having injured his wrist sliding home against Atlanta, but continued his penchant for late-season heroics — in July 2018 he hit a walkoff homer against the Phils to give him 10 walkoff RBIs, topping Wright’s club mark. But by the end of that year, Flores had become a player looking for a position. The Mets nontendered him, a decision that was sad but also seemed sound. This time, there were no tears — or if they were, they were private.

I have a few Mets memories that reliably make me tear up, ones that still pierce me because they jolt me back to the moment, to the miraculous transmutation of grinding, gnawing anxiety into joyous certainty and release. Mike Piazza [23] connecting off Terry Mulholland [24]. Mookie’s grounder trickling … and getting through Bill Buckner [25]. Steve Finley [26] coming down and discovering Todd Pratt [27]‘s drive is on the wrong side of the Shea Stadium wall. Robin Ventura [28] sending us back to Georgia. And Wilmer Flores coming home.

I think it’s because that moment was what we all want sports to be, while knowing it usually isn’t. There’s a fundamental gulf between fans and players, one that’s about not just ability but also vocation. We’re fans who live and die with our teams despite being helpless to affect what happens on the diamond; the players can do that, but the diamond is their workplace and team is their employer. Their emotional bond with the laundry we regard as near-sacred? It’s necessarily lesser, should it exist at all.

But once in a great while, that isn’t true. Wilmer Flores became a Met as a child; as a young man, the idea of being parted from his baseball family left him in tears. On that night in July 2015 he was the team’s accidental shortstop, a role for which he wasn’t exactly a natural fit. A fresh start arguably would have been good for him. But he didn’t want to go — he wanted to stay and help write a better story. Given an improbable second chance, he did just that.

I can close my eyes and see him rounding third. There’s a crowd of giddy teammates awaiting him at home plate, and a happily baying stadium full of fans on all sides. He tosses his helmet away and grabs at his blue uniform, at that script word on his chest: METS. Wilmer tugs on it for emphasis, and that moment shows that word — that silly, made-up little word — means as much to him as it does to us. And then, with a last step, he vanishes into the throng and stomps on the plate, coming home.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 [29]Richie Ashburn [30]
1964 [31]Rod Kanehl [32]
1966 [33]: Shaun Fitzmaurice [34]
1969 [35]Donn Clendenon [36]
1972 [37]Gary Gentry [38]
1973 [39]Willie Mays [40]
1977 [41]Lenny Randle [42]
1982 [43]Rusty Staub [44]
1991 [45]Rich Sauveur [46]
1992 [47]Todd Hundley [48]
1994 [49]Rico Brogna [50]
1995: [51] Jason Isringhausen [52]
2000 [53]Melvin Mora [54]
2002 [55]Al Leiter [56]
2003 [57]David Cone [58]
2008 [59]Johan Santana [60]
2009 [61]Angel Pagan [62]
2012 [63]R.A. Dickey [64]