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Future Met Alumni of America

It was reasonably fitting that Jay Payton [1] stopped by the SNY booth in the bottom of the fourth inning Friday night. Jay and Butch Huskey are this weekend’s special guest alumni at Citi Field. If you haven’t noticed, every Friday the Mets welcome home a pair of former players to meet the press, sign autographs in the team Hall of Fame, make the podcast [2] and YouTube [3] rounds, surprise contest-winners by presenting them their prizes and join the live broadcasts.

It’s possibly the classiest thing this organization does on a regular basis, providing a long-absent confirmation from the Mets that they realize there are Mets and Met years that mean something to us beyond a few superstars and a couple of champions. Sometimes the returning duos’ Mets careers were contemporaneous (Turk Wendell/Rick Reed; Doug Flynn/Joel Youngblood), sometimes they seem to be paired by chance (Frank Thomas/Rico Brogna; Jack Fisher/Felix Millan). Payton and Huskey each entered our Met consciousness during roughly the same era, but in fact they only overlapped on the active roster for a month. Butch’s final days in a Mets uniform, September 1998, coincided with Jay’s first cup of coffee. Butch was soon off to play the role of journeyman, while Jay eventually became part of that rarest of post-1986 specimens, a Mets World Series team.

That cachet definitely gave Gary Cohen a Jay hook when he spoke to Payton. Did you realize, our ace announcer asked the 2000 National League champions’ starting center fielder, that you are but one of two players to have hit a postseason home run off very recently inducted Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera (brief Met Sandy Alomar, Jr., being the other)? Yup, Jay said, he’s pretty aware of that delicious fact. Too bad it didn’t happen in a win instead of the late rush that didn’t quite close the gap in Game Two of the World Series, he acknowledged — could have enjoyed it more had we won.

Yet there was a World Series. There was a postseason. Jay had a huge hit to help defeat the Giants in Game Two of the NLDS nineteen years ago. He and Darryl Hamilton teamed to give the Mets a tenth-inning edge that John Franco put in the books with one of the borderline strike three calls of all time on Barry Bonds. Payton’s good work in the NLDS and NLCS came in victory. We got to enjoy it because we won.

Payton was traded by the Mets at the deadline in 2002. The Mets were barely hanging onto playoff delusions two months out. They needed another pitcher. An outfielder was deemed expendable. West to the Rockies went Jay. East to Queens came John Thomson. If you don’t remember John Thomson pitching the Mets to the 2002 postseason, you’re not alone. While the Mets evaporated in the heat of August, Jay commenced on his journeyman adventure: the Rockies through 2003; the Padres in 2004; then three American League franchises between 2005 and 2008, with one visit to the playoffs in the middle (Oakland, 2006). After injury kept him out all of 2009 — injuries bedeviled him in the minor leagues, too, explaining why it took so long for him to climb from supplemental first-round pick in 1994 to callup in 1998 to a third-place Rookie of the Year campaign in 2000 — he had one last pennant race fling with Colorado in September 2010.

At that late stage, he became the Longest Ago Met Still Active and the Last Met Standing [4] from the ’98 Wild Card chase, which is its own kind of cachet in these parts. Given his relatively wayward professional sojourn across America, Jay had never stepped foot inside Citi Field until Friday night. He seemed to like it. Despite the organization giving up on him when he was 29, he sounded happy to be home.

Someday, depending on whether the Mets of the future (Mercury [5] or otherwise) rigorously maintain their revitalized alumni outreach program, perhaps Zack Wheeler [6] will sound the same way. Zack will be a Met alumnus at a date yet to be determined. It could be years from now. It could be next week. If it’s the latter, he won’t have time to chat in the booth soon because he’ll be pitching for somebody else, perhaps a Met opponent. Wheeler is the most obvious Met trade chip on this deadline’s table. Maybe, as scuttlebutt suggests [7], Noah Syndergaard will reveal himself as the real jackpot by July 31, but until the stakes are raised to such dizzying heights, the buzz that Wheeler is likely to go remains clearly audible.

While Payton visited Gary, Keith and Ron, Zack threw a drama-free fourth against the Pirates: three up, three down, twelve pitches in all for a pitcher who used to battle pitch counts as much as opposing lineups. This was where it got reasonably fitting, as Zack’s Met trajectory has been loosely reminiscent of Jay’s.

• Also a first-round draft choice, though selected by San Francisco before we nabbed him at another of our numerous non-contending deadlines.

• Also somebody on whom we pinned long-term hopes before we ever got a good look at him, the way fans of non-contenders will.

• Also too many injuries getting in the way of delivering on what was projected.

Jay had a swell major league career: the Rookie of the Year bid in 2000; a solid walk year in 2003 that earned him a nice free agent contract; 119 regular-season home runs plus three in postseason play…the three-run shot off Rivera included. He didn’t man center field day in, day out for a contending Mets club year after year after year as we dreamed he might, but he did it for a while. That’ll earn you an alumni invitation every time.

Zack, the same age currently that Jay was when the Mets traded him, is having the same kind of respectable career. The greatness is episodic at best. Being solid has been plenty sufficient. Solid would describe Zack’s Friday outing, his first since before the All-Star break and through an IL stay necessitated by shoulder fatigue: five-and-a-third innings, limited ahead of time to 73 pitches in deference to the shoulder. He gave up one homer on a night the Mets hit four (one dinger apiece from puppy pal [8] Jeff McNeil, Todd Frazier, Wilson Ramos and, now with twice as many as the 17 Jay Payton belted in his rookie season, Pete Alonso), allowing three runs in all. He struck out seven and walked nobody, leaving with a couple Buccos on base, neither of whom came around to score. With legitimate relief support from Luis Avilán, Robert Gsellman, Justin Wilson and closer pro tempore Seth Lugo, he earned 6-3 win [9] that raised his lifetime record…a.k.a. his record as a Met…to 40-36. Nobody seriously puts stock in pitchers’ won-lost records, but it was nice to see Wheeler get a W for the road, should the road beckon.

When our starter departed the game, he was given a standing ovation from the fans in attendance who could read a calendar. As I watched, I could see Zack receiving the same kind of hand in a big game the Mets needed to advance toward or in the playoffs. Except I was imagining that part. Zack never had the opportunity to take the mound in a game of a critical nature. No images left behind from the outsize stage upon which Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard and Matz were able to stride and shine. That’s the void where Wheeler is concerned. He did his best for bad Met teams. He was too hurt to contribute at all to good Met teams. His ledger implies some of the worst timing in club history: 2013-2014; 2017-2019. In between were 2015 and 2016, the only generally enjoyable seasons we have known during Zack Wheeler’s era, except for Zack and his Tommy John situation, the era demonically pressed pause. Talk about bedeviled by injuries.

Thus, if this is it, and Zack becomes an ex-Met in the coming days and a Met alumnus with no second act, whoever interviews him when he returns to Citi Field will have no obvious upbeat angle to pursue, no “that time you and the Mets went to the World Series together” or anything close to it. Instead, the conversation will have to revolve around how well Zack pitched more often than not, how hard he tried to pitch better, how pleasant he always came off as, hopefully how much he liked being part of a Mets team that didn’t win but a bunch of us stuck with, anyway.

That will be fine, if that’s how it has to go.