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Gary To Give It Another Go

Omar Minaya heard it was Fred Wilpon’s thirtieth anniversary as a Met owner [1]. For a gift, he thought about what the chairman and CEO had; didn’t have; and once had but had no longer. Omar was intrigued by the last category. Surely, he thought, there was something Fred once held in his collection, regretted not holding onto, yet might like again.

So Omar went on eBay, scanned the many offerings and clicked “Buy It Now” when he got to Gary Matthews, Jr.

Fred’s gonna love this, Omar thought.

That’s as good a theory as any to explain why Matthews is again a Met. And if you’re stumbling over the use of the word “again,” don’t feel bad. You might have gotten up to go the restroom during the only three pitches Gary Matthews saw as a Met batter, when he pinch-hit and flied out for the final out of the sixth inning on Opening Day 2002 [2]. You might have taken an important phone call while Bobby Valentine was inserting Gary as a pinch-runner for Mo Vaughn in the bottom of the eighth two days later. While you were chatting, Matthews was going first to third on a Mike Piazza single. Edgardo Alfonzo, however, would strand him one pitch later…strand him forever, in a Met manner of speaking

If you didn’t get off the phone until the top of the ninth, you missed Gary Matthews, Jr.’s big moment as a Met. After the game, he was traded to the Orioles for minor league pitcher John Bale. The next day, McKay Christensen was here in his place, going on to play in twice as many Met games (4) as Gary ever did (2) before his own designation for assignment.

Gary Matthews, Jr., meanwhile, went on and played in a lot more games for the Orioles, the Padres and the Rangers between 2002 and 2005. He fell into that category of useful if undistinguished (as if any of us wouldn’t trade in whatever distinction we had in any other field to become a useful big league ballplayer). In 2006, his free agent walk year, Gary Matthews, Jr., suddenly became a star. He made hellacious SportsCenter catches for Texas, batted. 313 and scored 102 runs. Then he scored an unbelievable contract based on his brilliant timing, signing with the Angels for five years and $50 million.

Three of those years are over with. None of the first three much resembled his 2006. Then again, not much of our last three have resembled our 2006. And now we get his next two years.

Hmmm…maybe that’s what attracted Omar to Gary Matthews, Jr. They both peaked four seasons ago.

If you like outfielders named Gary who have been associated with unnatural enhancements [3] in their game, and you don’t want the Mets to pay for all that much of them, then Matthews may be for you. That was the deal with Gary Sheffield. Gary Sheffield was worth a shot (ahem), it was reasoned, since his disenchanted American League team was paying most of his freight upon his landing with the Mets. The Sheffield experiment, wherein the Tigers picked up the bulk of his tab, kind of worked there for a while. Then it didn’t. In the end, Gary Sheffield was hardly the Mets’ biggest problem in 2009.

Then again, Gary Matthews, Jr. has never been as good a player as Gary Sheffield was at their respective peaks — which Sheffield, incidentally, was still astride at Matthews’ age. Matthews is 35 and had his only notable season when he was 31. We got Sheffield when he was 40 and Sheffield had been putting up very good numbers as recently as when he was 36.

Either way, lots of past-their-prime action at Citi Field in its infancy.

We likely wouldn’t be seeing the second coming of Gary Matthews, Jr. at all were it not for the projected absence of Carlos Beltran. This is the second week of the twelve weeks during which Carlos is abstaining from baseball activity. Generally speaking, we’re better off when Omar Minaya is abstaining from baseball activity. Matthews for the periodically useful Brian Stokes and a big stack of Angelbucks [4]is clearly a contingency move. He’s here because Carlos Beltran isn’t and because there is strong reason to suspect Angel Pagan won’t be anything close to Carlos Beltran in the interim. Is Matthews in center for (hopefully) the short term preferable to Pagan? It’s like choosing between store-brand soda that’s not so bad once you get used to the aftertaste and an out-of-code nationally known cola that, if you ignore its clearly expired sweetener, might get the job done on your thirst. That you’re getting by without your favorite soft drink is what you can’t help but be aware of.

Baseball players aren’t necessarily analogous to beverages — Met center field candidates, in particular, seem to lack pop. Juice, allegedly [5], is a different story, but never mind that right now.

Even as we move the pieces around the middle of the Mets’ absurdly expansive green chess board, let’s not overlook Gary Matthews, Jr.’s prodigal proclivities. Should he play for the Mets in 2010, he will become the 35th Met to: leave; play for another big league club; and, at last, return home. We call that subtribe of Amazin’s the Recidivist Mets [6], a group whose most notable members [7] include Rusty Staub, Lee Mazzilli and Tom Seaver. The Recidivist Mets don’t encompass the Lost Boys like Endy Chavez, Nelson Figueroa and Pagan (and, pending his making it to the starting line, Jason Bay), Met minor leaguers who made the majors elsewhere before following the trail of blue and orange breadcrumbs back home to fulfill their destinies and perform as  Mets in full. It also doesn’t count Pedro Feliciano [8], who left the organization after debuting as a Met but didn’t play anywhere else in the bigs before returning to his natural habitat. Nor does this encompass someone like Jesse Orosco [9], traded back to the Mets after 1999 but traded from the Mets before 2000. (In case you were wondering if it did…which I’m sure you weren’t.)

Between 2005 and 2009, the ever sentimental Omar Minaya has brought back two Mets who had been long gone — Kelly Stinnett and Brady Clark — as well as three he himself discarded not much earlier — Roberto Hernandez, Marlon Anderson and Anderson Hernandez. I suppose that once he went to the well for second helpings of an Anderson and a Hernandez, the reacquisition of Anderson Hernandez was a fait accompli.

None of Omar’s Recidivist Mets particularly outdid their earlier incarnations, which is not uncommon. Almost no Recidivist Met shines brighter the second time around. Gary Matthews, Jr., however, would have to conk himself on the head while standing in the on-deck circle to not outdo his 2002 Met résumé of one unsuccessful pinch-hitting appearance and one inconsequential pinch-running appearance.

And if he can’t outdo that much, Omar can always send him packing again. McKay Christensen is still out there somewhere [10].