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Faces of the Franchise

David Wright now stands alone atop the admittedly rather smallish peak known as All-Time Mets Hits Leaders. He got there with a third-inning tapper up the third-base line, a little excuse-me roller that was thrown away and left Wright waving — perhaps a trifle sheepishly — from second base. It was a small hit for a Met, honestly, but a giant leap for Metkind, carrying David to No. 1,419 and leaving Ed Kranepool [1] behind.

I’d actually been kind of hoping Wright wouldn’t collect No. 1,419 Wednesday night, because I have a ticket for Thursday afternoon, when R.A. Dickey goes for his 39th career Mets victory, which would move him ahead of Ed Lynch, Jack Fisher and (weirdly) Frank Viola and into a tie with John Maine for 23rd on the all-time list. Joshua and I had even engaged in a rather odd debate a couple of nights ago: What would happen if Thursday afternoon’s game went to the bottom of the ninth tied 1-1 with Dickey the pitcher of record and Wright at 1,418 hits, only then David swatted a home run into the Mets’ bullpen? What we wanted to know was MY GOD WHO WOULD GET THE BALL?

We should have such problems, right?

(By the way, the kid and I agreed that Dickey would wind up with it after several long rounds of you first/no after you between two conspicuously team-conscious guys.)

Wanting Wright to wait was a selfish wish, and I’m happy to say I was thrilled for him the moment it was clear he was safe. Wright looks much the same as he did as a rookie in 2004, but all of a sudden we realize he’s been around these parts seemingly forever.

I was at Shea in July 2004 for his first game [2], having dragged along a colleague from the Journal for a historical milestone I was approximately 50,000 times more interested in than he was. (Our rookie went 0-for-4 as the Mets beat the Expos, improving to .500 for the year.) Since then we’ve seen him as a young player with a precocious grasp of the strike zone, as Cliff Floyd’s good-natured foil, as a dreamer fulfilled spraying Champagne on fans with a soaked cigar in his teeth, as the designated facer of media music after two collapses, as the agonized poster child for Citi Field’s too-distant power alleys, as an anxious leader disastrously expanding the strike zone in an effort to accommodate the weight of the world on his shoulders, as the endpoint of a horrifyingly errant Matt Cain fastball, as a revived presence at the plate and at third base, and as who knows what next. If we close our eyes we can see him wiping his face in his uniform, holding his bat before his eyes like a broadsword and then exhaling deeply before going to work — just as we can probably see him standing in front of his locker, dutiful, patient and Jeteresquely bland-spoken after another bad night of the office.

The face of the franchise? Absolutely. Close your eyes and try that same exercise with anybody else.

I don’t know whether Wright and the Mets are destined to stay on the same path. I get worried when fans talk about re-signing Wright as if that’s solely the Mets’ decision. Their financial future is perilous, and so are their near-term prospects of reaching the playoffs. Wright is decent and loyal, but he also wants to win — and it would be hard to blame him if he’d rather not wait until he’s 32 or 33 to have another chance at that. As No. 1,419 trundled through the grass and Wright streaked for first, I had a thoroughly unwelcome thought: Damned if that doesn’t remind me of Jose Reyes’s last hit as a Met.

I worry that I won’t be able to stop thinking about that. But whatever happens, I’ll also keep thinking of this: At a recent blogger event at Citi Field I stood by the Mets dugout watching Wright after batting practice, and was amazed at how often he was asked to do something — sit down with this camera crew, talk with this reporter, shake hands with this bigwig, take a photo with this family, sign balls for these kids. It was exhausting to watch, let alone go through, and the beginning of the game was still a long ways off. Through it all Wright was gracious and thoughtful, when he would have been absolutely justified in retreating to some corner of the outfield or ducking into the clubhouse for a little peace and quiet. That ought to be part of the applause for his milestone as well.

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Oddly enough, though, on a historic night it was another Met who held my attention.

The last time we saw Jeremy Hefner start a game, he was as bad as a pitcher can be: Seven Phillies came to the plate against him, and all of them reached base. Before he could blink it was 8-0 and Hefner was in the dugout with an Urdanetan ERA [3] for the day of infinity.

Hefner has never exactly struck you as a fit for New York City — he’s a 26-year-old, devout Oklahoman who confessed to Kevin Burkhardt that doing a between-innings interview made him really nervous. His disastrous start found me in a church pew peeking at Gameday, and I silently cursed his name as the carnage reached surreal levels. But my annoyance with Hefner vanished when I saw the footage of him talking to reporters after the game, voice cracking and composure in danger. The Mets had been pasted, sure, but it was one game in a lost season — and as Greg noted, Hefner sounded devastated, not disappointed [4]. Frankly, I was worried about him — worried then and worried tonight as he toed the rubber against the Pirates.

So it was delightful to see him absolutely throttle the Bucs, hitting his location with all of his pitches and having about as fine a game as one could hope for [5]. Asked later if he’d thought about that last start, Hefner didn’t seek refuge in ancient cliches about tomorrow being another day, turning the page, and so on. Yes, he said, he’d thought about it — and it was pretty clear from the look in his eyes and the relief in his voice that he’d thought of little else.

Hefner will start again in Miami next week — as one would expect after seven innings, three hits and no runs. But if he’d had another start like the one against the Phillies, it’s entirely possible he might not have — and conceivable we might never have seen him again.

Hefner’s one of those guys who throws several pitches competently but none impressively, depending on his ability to change speeds and hit spots. He can win when he does those things; when he can’t he’s a good bet to get whacked around. That scouting report could describe thousands of pitchers in baseball history, which is the point: Guys like Hefner aspire to be Greg Maddux or maybe Rick Reed, but the vast majority of them aren’t. If they’re lucky, you find them bouncing around between the back of big-league rotations and stints as spot starters or long men. If they’re unlucky, they get stuck in the minors, putting together long careers that never again break the big-league waterline [6]. The difference between those two fates? It can come down to a start in late September when the bullpen varsity is being saved for the next day and all eyes are elsewhere and your last start was a disaster and you don’t want to think about it but your career may be poised on a knife’s edge.

We’ll hear a lot more about David Wright for years; it’s not clear that Jeremy Hefner will be a name much remarked around here or anywhere else. But what Hefner did was also harder than we might think, and also worthy of appreciation and applause.

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Faith and Fear readers, please offer your support to Shannon Forde of the Mets’ media-relations department. Shannon has always been a great friend to Faith and Fear and our fellow bloggers, and is a wife and mother facing a tough fight against Stage IV breast cancer. Please visit Hope Shines For Shannon [7] and consider attending the November 1 fundraiser in her honor or giving whatever you can to help her family.