David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - A year ago, in this same space, we looked at the signing of Curtis Granderson and saw the second coming of Jason Bay.
The pressures of a new contract, the move into a more spacious ballpark. Similar, hazardous ingredients that, when mixed, contributed to Bay's implosion at Citi Field and eventual flameout with the Mets.
In Granderson's case, however, the Mets got a rare lucky break -- from the Bronx, of all places -- this past October when the Yankees dumped hitting coach Kevin Long, who just so happened to be Granderson's offensive muse.
Long was hired in a matter of weeks, and the impact on Granderson -- as well as on the rest of the Mets' lineup -- seems to be almost as immediate with Opening Day fast approaching.
This still is spring training, so we can't get too crazy with numbers that technically don't count. Then again, it's all we have at the moment. And by Grapefruit League standards, there has been a noticeable bump in Granderson's production since Long's arrival -- and the Mets are raking at a pace that's on par with teams more expected to be juggernauts this season.
Through 14 games, admittedly a small sample size, Granderson was batting .424 (14-for-33) with two home runs, nine RBIs and a 1.179 OPS. The Mets were leading the majors with a .360 on-base percentage and .485 slugging percentage. They also were tops in the Grapefruit League with a .289 batting average, 28 home runs and 141 runs scored (tied with the Tigers).
"There's a lot of good vibes going on," Long said. "It's really just about getting to know guys and what makes them tick. We've still got a lot of work to do, but I feel like we're in a pretty good spot right now."
Long already was tight with Granderson, who is more critical to the Mets' lineup than anyone not named David Wright. If Long can get Granderson back to being an intimidating middle-of-the-order bat, people won't be so preoccupied with the Mets as a pitching-first team.
Last year, Granderson wrapped up the Grapefruit schedule batting .157 (8-for-51) with twice as many strikeouts as hits in 20 games. His OPS was half (.594) of what it is right now.
Once the season began, Granderson also didn't do much to distance himself from the Bay comparisons with an April slash line of .136/.252/.216 and one home run in 103 plate appearances.
As unfriendly as Citi Field's dimensions were, the people in the seats didn't make his life any easier. He finished the season .227/.326/.388 with 20 home runs -- not exactly what the Mets had in mind with the four-year, $60-million contract.
But with Long on board, they're hoping he can help make that a solid investment. We're betting Granderson's improved numbers this spring aren't merely a coincidence. When he's not taking batting practice under Long's supervision, Granderson is working with him in the cage, and this happens for hours every single day.
"He's known as a gym rat," Granderson said. "He's different than most. He's always involved. That's part of the reason he had Tommy John surgery a few years ago -- he's constantly throwing. He constantly gives you whatever you request."
Granderson also described the confidence that Long tries to impart to his pupils. Patching holes in a hitter's self-esteem is nearly as important as correcting flaws in his swing. He's done that with Granderson for years, and Long believed that clicking with Granderson would help him reach the rest of the Mets' clubhouse as well.
"I wasn't too stressed about that one," Long said of their reunion. "It was more an inner feeling of peace. There's a trust that's been built there."
A few months in, Long is going for more than trust. The only criteria he'll be judged on is performance. Long became the fall guy in the Bronx when the Yankees went into the tank offensively even though their roster again was crippled by injuries. But he didn't come to Queens for vindication.
"I understand the business," Long said. "I understood at some point I wasn't going to be the Yankees' hitting coach. Unfortunately, it happened. But I'm a Met now. I turned that page a long time ago."
We'll see how the next chapter turns out soon enough.