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Tender Sentiments for Wilmer Flores

In a “win now” world, give it up for a Met who helped us win then, Wilmer Flores [1]. Brodie Van Wagenen sure did. Actually, he gave up Wilmer Flores, authorizing the non-tender of the cuddliest of Mets [2] on Friday somewhere between his high-stakes wheeling and go-for-it dealing.

Few baseball acts are as onomatopoeic as non-tender, for it is exactly what it sounds like. I can’t think of anything as non-tender as telling your ballplayer he is no longer wanted. Perhaps the non-tender should be relabeled the harsh so we’d read, clearly and accurately, “The New York Mets have harshed Wilmer Flores” when we scan the Transactions section of our information outlet of choice.

Instructing Wilmer to take a hike (which is also what Flores would do when ostensibly sprinting from first to third) is surely transactional. That’s what we are as a franchise right now. We have to be. We’re not sentimental from the top down. No time for that in fourth place, no time for that with a new GM who doesn’t seem to know anybody he’s never represented. If what Van Wagenen is up to pays off ASAP, we’ll tie him a bowtie and call him the reincarnation of Frank Cashen.

Brodie’s got Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz and goodness knows what else in his eyes [3]. He’s got 2019 on his mind, perhaps 2020, we’ll see about later when later rolls around. Brodie’s all Mets present, a modicum of Mets future, only incidental Mets past. He’s not thinking about August 6, 2007, the day Wilmer Flores simultaneously turned 16 and signed his first professional contract and started becoming a Met. Three scouts are listed as having inked Wilmer — or as many hits as it generally takes to score him from first. To Sandy Johnson, Ismael Cruz and Robert Alfonzo, the kid from Valenzia, Venezuela, came on like a dream, peaches and cream, hit like strawberry wine. More Strawberry than Throneberry, presumably.

As he batted his way up the Mets chain, he got noticed. Baseball America kept ranking him as a Top 100 prospect. Today, that’s enough to get you thrown into a Win Now trade. Then it was enough to let you grow into a major leaguer slowly but surely. Parts of three seasons at lower Single-A Savannah. Parts of three seasons at higher Single-A St. Lucie. About the time he turned old enough to drink in Flushing, he graduated to the upper levels of the minors: Binghamton in 2012, Las Vegas in 2013 and, six years to the day he was signed, New York. Denver, actually. Wilmer made his major league debut against the Rockies on his 22nd birthday, a shortstop turned third baseman called up to fill in for another homegrown third baseman in his background, David Wright.

The Flores climb was by no means complete. His first pot of coffee (101 plate appearances) yielded no slash line component as high as .300. Wilmer started 2014 attached to Las Vegas and was subject to the transcontinental shuttle until he was recalled once and for all in late July. He played more middle infield than hot corner. He stepped up his production. Not only was it enough to earn Wilmer a spot on the 2015 Opening Day roster, he was handed the starting shortstop job. Some players are said to be cursed with versatility. Wilmer was blessed with assorted adequacy. His bat was judged promising enough to allow for a glove that never looked at home at any of the four positions he was assigned. Defense wasn’t an enormous priority with Sandy Alderson’s Mets.

A shortstop who can slug will make any GM look genius. When June began, Wilmer had eight home runs and the Mets were locked in a duel for first place with the Washington Nationals. As July dawned, however, he was in a slump and the Mets were scuffling to stay close to the Nats. By late July, help was on its way. Michael Conforto from Binghamton. Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson from Atlanta. More was needed. Perhaps a veteran power/speed guy who could not only hit but field. Maybe one who was available for a package centered on a former prospect who wasn’t overwhelming major league pitching in his first full season and not smothering every ground ball in his vicinity.

This is where Wilmer Flores went from being a likable enough kid with some pop to a Wednesday night curiosity to a Friday evening cause to a legend forever after. This is where a transaction went missing and sentiment shot up the charts. This is where a trade that was supposed to bring former Met Carlos Gomez back to New York for Wilmer and injured pitcher Zack Wheeler was reported as a sure thing. Word spread throughout Citi Field, where the Mets — including shortstop Flores — were in the process of losing to the San Diego Padres. We knew this swap was going down. It was on Twitter, for crying out loud. So when we saw Wilmer, en route to Milwaukee, come up to bat for what would be, we were informed by reliable sources, the last time as a Met, we gave him an appreciative hand. Thanks for stopping by, young man. Good luck in the Cream City. When’s Carlos getting here?

Funny thing, though. Wilmer stayed in the game. Crazy Mets, huh? Other teams take the players they’re trading out of the game ASAP. Our team hadn’t. Unbeknownst to those of us in the ballpark, nobody told Terry Collins he couldn’t use Wilmer Flores and Terry obviously hadn’t checked his mobile device. Wilmer, meanwhile, only knew what happened because the fans close enough for him to hear were suddenly wishing him bon voyage. Seriously, though, where’s Gomez gonna bat?

We transactional bastards were routinely preparing to get on with our lives as fans when it became apparent that Wilmer Flores, suddenly informed he was an ex-Met, decided instantly he didn’t want to be that. We’d known him for parts of two prior seasons, then this one. He’d known the Mets and only the Mets for approximately a third of his life. Sixteen years old when signed, a week shy of his twenty-fourth birthday as Twitter was elbowing him toward Wisconsin. He hadn’t yet digested this reported trade in the context of baseball being a cold business.

So he started crying, if not out loud, then visibly for the television cameras to pick up. Nobody’d ever seen a scene quite like this. A player getting emotional while playing. Not hotheaded emotional break a bat over your knee, but human feelings of coping with rejection and dejection. Not in pee wee league, but in the National League.

Well, wouldn’t you know, the reports of Flores’s demise as a New York Met were premature. The trade with the Brewers fell through. The Mets still needed help, but at this moment, on July 29, 2015, they weren’t going to find it via deletion of Wilmer.

Help would have to wait two more nights, to Friday. A trade would happen, Yoenis Cespedes of the Tigers headed to New York in exchange for two minor league pitchers. Yo was invigorating news, but he wasn’t going to arrive until Saturday. Friday night there was a game to play. A game to win, as much as a game on July 31 had to be won. It was against the Nationals, the first of three. The Mets were three back. This was the first must-win series in Citi Field history. Astronomically speaking, this was also the first time the Mets played a game at Citi Field while a blue moon hung in the Flushing sky, an appropriate enough phenomenon considering first place was our shoot-for-the-moon priority.

Never let it be said Mets fans can’t multitask. Yes, root for the Mets to take it to the Nationals. Yes, concentrate on the standings and what Cespedes might mean to how they would align in the coming days and weeks. But look who’s playing second base for us: it’s Wilmer Flores! Wilmer Flores cried because he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving us! We love that, we’re pretty sure, because nobody has ever expressed quite that sentiment quite so genuinely.

So the game became Wilmer Flores Appreciation Night from the first inning on, when he handled a simple 4-3 putout to thunderous applause. His first at-bat, in the second, rated a standing ovation, not for the groundout he produced but for the mere fact that it was he who produced it. Driving in the first run of the game, on a fourth-inning infield single, certainly didn’t hurt his rising Q rating.

The sun set. The night set in. The occasion’s Wilmerian subtext meshed amiably with the overarching Met goal of advancing from second place. Matt Harvey had the Nationals no-hit into the sixth, shut out into the eighth. Matt finally gave up one run, which was a problem for the pre-Cespedes Mets because they hadn’t added to that one run from the fourth. The game would have to go on beyond nine innings.

When it got to the bottom of the twelfth, still 1-1, it found its identity. So did Wilmer Flores. The Wilmer Flores Game. Wilmer Flores, who everybody thought was traded; who touched everybody’s heart as his eyes spilled tears; who assured everybody he didn’t want to leave; who was embraced for staying; who hit the third pitch he saw leading off the inning over the left field fence to win the Wilmer Flores Game, 2-1; who chose as his walkoff punctuation, just ahead of crossing the plate, the grabbing of the wordmark on the front of his jersey.

“Mets.” That what it said. That’s who Wilmer was. To him. To us.

After that, it didn’t really matter what else Wilmer Flores did. He was ours in a way few others could possibly be. Having catapulted us toward first place on July 31 (and provided SNY approximately 80% of its future offseason programming), the heaviest lifting would be assumed by Cespedes for the rest of the summer. Flores would homer five more times over the final two months en route to a total of sixteen, but otherwise filled a supporting role on a club whose offense rapidly morphed into Yoenis and the Mets…the National League East Champion Mets. Ruben Tejada’s dependable defense grew valued as the season grew late. He took over as the starting shortstop of record. Freed from filling in at first once Lucas Duda left the disabled list, Daniel Murphy shifted back to second. A reasonably agile David Wright, stenosis notwithstanding, also shook off the DL and anchored third again. Wilmer finished 2015 with an OPS a tick above .700 and began the postseason on the bench.

Tejada didn’t last the second game of the NLDS, having been viciously Utleyed out of action. Wilmer was a starter again, chipping in to elevate the Mets to the World Series, if not doing much to help them win it. Few Mets outright excelled against the Royals. Wilmer went 1-for-17 and took strike three from Wade Davis to end our crusade for ultimate glory in extras. Game Five went twelve innings. Not every twelfth inning was destined to belong to Wilmer Flores.

But the one from July 31 did and always would. We’d unfairly expect Flores to perpetually come through versus everybody as he did against Felipe Rivero and the Nats. Hopeful, heartfelt applause upon sighting No. 4 in games that were late and close became the stuff of Pavlov. Though orange-and-blue moonshots couldn’t be conjured on demand in response, we didn’t cease clapping. The circumstances would never again quite match those surrounding the Big Bang, but Wilmer delivered three more walkoff home runs over the next three seasons and knocked in the game-ending run on ten separate occasions overall. On July 3, 2016, the Mets didn’t require a dramatic finish because Wilmer was incredible the whole game through. Versus the Cubs, he homered twice and singled four times, a 6-for-6 Sunday, tying the team record set seventeen years earlier by fellow Venezuelan Edgardo Alfonzo.

As the Mets attempted to repeat their magic from 2015, Wilmer roved about the infield, playing 51 games at third, 27 at first, 18 at second and eight at short; eventually, he’d become the only Met to log at least 100 games apiece at all four positions. His power versus portsiders could not be ignored (OPS+ of 190 in 107 plate appearances), but if he loomed large against lefties, he proved limited in other facets of the game. Righties foiled him regularly, fielding vexed him and he was never gonna be in there for his speed. The player who tugged at his “Mets” and our better angels a year earlier was demoted to reserve duty. Come September, he was eliminated from the picture altogether, having wrecked a wrist sliding into home in Atlanta, Turner Field’s final curse on us. Floreslessly, the Mets battled their way into a second consecutive postseason before being shut immediately out of it in the Wild Card Game.

That era when the Mets extended their years into October was over in a blink. Wilmer remained stubbornly lovable (“I’ll be there for you…”) and recurringly clutch, but the team he personified receded into competitive obscurity. The guy who ended more Mets wins with one swing of the bat than anybody the franchise ever harbored couldn’t last a full season. The wrist in September ’16. A broken nose in September ’17. Arthritis diagnosed in both knees in September ’18. Considering he had no position to call his own, his mastery of lefties had diminished and you kind of need your knees in tip-top shape to play ball at your best, the new general manager of the Mets couldn’t necessarily be blamed for thinking offering a sentimental favorite a contract for ’19 wasn’t the most worthwhile use of the resources at his disposal. Thus, the non-tender.

Wilmer warmed our hearts those nights in 2015, but nobody said baseball had stopped being a cold business.

When Wilmer got here, at 22, the Mets were dismal. As Wilmer departs, at 27, they’ve been dismal. Van Wagenen is trying to change that condition pronto. He’s trading some well-regarded future for a blast of present as his bold first stab at improvement. If that doesn’t work out, we can blame him for that (we can be cold, too). Yet like the GM, we want a better ballclub sooner rather than later. We understand change has got to come.

Unlike the executive class, even in our most transactional mode, we come fully equipped with a Met memory. We can and will be sentimental even if we’re determined to be logical. What the hell, we don’t construct the roster. We’ve liked Wilmer Flores all along and loved him since the night he redirected the Mets once and for all away from the dismalness that had enveloped us for so long. Sure, there’d be another wave of dismal awaiting us on the other side of the era we fully entered once Flores took Rivero joyously deep, but we did get an era to revel in. Maybe it wasn’t much of an era when measured by length or, honestly, accomplishment. Just two seasons in the playoffs, just one in the World Series, no visits whatsoever to the Canyon of Heroes.

But it felt like so much more while it was at its best. Like the night of July 31, 2015, when the kid who’d rather cry than leave made certain we’d win instead of lose. That was quite the transaction Wilmer Flores conducted.