PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — In the annals of Mets history, Francisco Lindor is not one of a kind, but the latest iteration of a tried-and-true method for beginning an iconic career with the club.
A superstar in his prime, on a team that doesn’t want to pay him. A high-profile trade to the Mets, for whom he instantly became a face of the franchise. Usually, some degree of winning follows. Always, there is immense hype and a big contract, including Lindor’s 10 years and $341 million, agreed to late Wednesday night.
The Mets have done this about once a decade for generations. The major trades often precede some of the most memorable seasons and squads in the team’s existence.
Keith Hernandez, who joined the Mets during the 1983 season, knows what this dynamic is like. So do Mike Piazza, the only Hall of Famer in this group, who came to New York in 1998, and Johan Santana, the significant addition heading into 2008.
Their shared experience is uncommon, their fraternity tiny. This year, their background and lessons learned are relevant to Lindor, a perennial All-Star shortstop acquired by the Mets in a deal with Cleveland in January.
In separate phone interviews with Newsday, Hernandez, Piazza and Santana detailed their versions of this process and all that it includes: the transition to New York, dealing with the inevitable expectations and how money changed things (or didn’t).
"I always believe there’s a spiritual component to it, especially in a trade," Piazza said. "When you’re traded to New York like this, it’s something special because the team really believes in you and thinks that you can be a cornerstone for the franchise."
Lindor declined an interview request through a team spokesman, who said it was part of the player’s spring training-long rejection of such media engagements.
"I’m Francisco Lindor," he said during his introductory video news conference in January. "I’m going to do me and hopefully people like that and hopefully people embrace me. I’m going to embrace them. I’m going to enjoy the ride. I feel like I’m a little kid playing the best game out there, so why not?"
Welcome to New York
As those who have played in the Big Apple will tell you, New York is different. It just is. The fans, the media and attention, the food, the traffic — it’s a vibe thing. And sometimes you have to learn to like it.
Like Lindor coming from Cleveland, Hernandez and Santana joined the Mets after being in smaller markets — St. Louis and Minnesota, respectively — for the first stage of their careers. Even for Piazza, coming from the big-market Dodgers on the more relaxed West Coast (with a five-game layover in Miami), playing and living in "market No. 1" was a culture shock.
"New York was just a different animal," Piazza said, calling it a "pressure cooker."
"It can wear on you a little bit. New York City is New York City. We’ve seen throughout history there’s been players who have had high expectations and they just couldn’t hack it there. For whatever reason."
Hernandez said he used to view New York as a "rest city." It was a place to catch up on sleep, not somewhere players went out on the town. During his first trip there, as a rookie in 1974, a coach warned him not to stray far from the Cardinals’ midtown Manhattan hotel because it was easy to end up somewhere sketchy.
Three decades later, Santana, too, didn’t enjoy being in New York pre-trade. As a visiting player, he said, you want to come in, play your three games and leave.
"But when you become one of them, it’s different," Santana, after helping at one of his children's baseball practices, said in a rare interview. "You see what the whole city of New York is about. Whatever you want, they have it. You want to eat whatever kind of food, they’ll have it for you, you know? That’s the beauty about it. The traffic, you learn how to live with it."
That gosh-darn traffic was Santana’s primary complaint, mentioned unsolicited. Piazza groaned and laughed at similar memories. When he was new to the area, he got these ideas in his head about living in particular places — Bergen County, SoHo, wherever — only to be warned by longtime New Yorkers about how much of a hassle the commute to the ballpark in Flushing would be.
"Everyone was shooting down my dream scenarios of where I was going to live and hang out," said Piazza, who decided to live in New Jersey for a year anyway (and learned that the warnings were correct).
Embracing New York was not immediate for Piazza. He was iffy on a long-term stay until an epiphany during a night out with a friend during the 1998 season.
"It was just one of those things, walking around the West Village on a Sunday night and I was like, ‘Man, this is unbelievable. This is beautiful,’ " recalled Piazza, who was set to be a free agent that offseason. "I was able to relax because we had a day off the next day. I think I had a few pops, if you know what I mean. I remember the energy, and I remember, ‘I can do this.’ "
Here is the thing about being an exceptional player in New York: Everyone expects you to be exceptional, immediately and always. If you’re not, the fans will tell you that they’ve noticed.
So consider this a warning at the outset of the Mets’ Lindor era. Even the best, most popular players get booed sometimes.
For Santana, it happened in his first start at Shea Stadium. His first two outings were good — and on the road — and during introductions before the home opener, he received what he called "a very nice standing ovation." Four days later, he allowed the Brewers five runs (four earned) and three homers. Vocal disapproval ensued.
"My first game in New York, boom," he said, laughing with the benefit of hindsight. "I understood something: New York, they let you know when you’re doing good, but they’re also going to let you know when you’re doing bad. If you understand that, you’re going to be fine."
It happened to Piazza, too. And he didn’t even play poorly after the May 1998 trade. He hit .363 the first month, .303 the second. He remembers the hisses during some summertime home games anyway.
"The fans, naturally, didn’t care about that single I got in the third inning. They wanted a big home run or a base hit later in the game," he said during a recent visit from Italy, where he lives, to Pennsylvania to see family. "Getting booed is not fun. And you can do one of two things: You can rebel and let it defeat you, or you can focus and let it motivate you."
Hernandez felt pressure to impress — anxiety, he prefers to call it — and wanted to avoid the same fate. In 1984, his first full season with the Mets and his first season after signing a contract extension, he was relieved that the Mets began the year on the road, nine games in Cincinnati, Houston, Atlanta and Chicago (a sequence he can still rattle off).
He said he didn’t want to go to Queens with his batting average "on the interstate," i.e. under .200. A 4-for-4 day in the penultimate game of that road trip boosted his average about 100 points, and when he stepped to the plate at Shea, the scoreboard displayed an acceptable number: .270.
"I was happy about that, that I could acclimate myself on the road, not in front of the home fans," Hernandez said during a drive to one of the Mets’ spring training games. "I kind of could ease in."
Lindor will get the same benefit. The Mets open with three games in Washington and three games in Philadelphia.
Regarding team expectations, the circumstances under which Lindor has joined the Mets are like Piazza’s and Santana’s. The Mets were good, and the major acquisition was supposed to push them over the top.
Piazza called himself not "the final piece, but I would say a big piece" on the way to the 1999 NLCS and 2000 World Series.
Santana said he felt he could be "the difference-maker" and help the Mets "overcome everything that happened in the past," including heartbreak in 2006 and 2007. But his Mets had a winning record only once, in 2008, when they were eliminated from postseason contention on the last day of the season (for the second season in a row).
"You hope for a lot, and you come up short," said Santana, whose Mets career was highlighted by a 2012 no-hitter and derailed by arm injuries. "Things didn’t work out the way we wanted. But my time there, I gave everything I had."
It wasn’t the same for Hernandez, who joined a team that stunk in 1983 and was expected to stink again in 1984 (until they surprised with 90 wins). But he offered an alternative comparison for Lindor: the late Gary Carter, who joined the Mets in December 1984, a critical step in the lead-up to their 1986 World Series championship — still the organization’s most recent.
Hernandez said Carter was "a big, big, big, big, big boost," and now so is Lindor.
"This Mets group is a pretty tight group, too. They like each other, you know?" Hernandez said. "Like we welcomed Carter, I’m sure they’ve welcomed Lindor: with open arms and smiles on their faces."
The Mets’ trade with the Twins for Santana was contingent on Santana agreeing to a contract extension. The eventual terms: six years and $137.5 million, at the time the biggest in franchise history. Thus, Santana’s situation wasn’t quite the same as Lindor’s.
Hernandez and Piazza, though, have an idea of what Lindor went through on the contract front. Both played their first (partial) season with the Mets before committing for a longer term the following offseason. For Lindor, spring training was enough to get a feel for the Mets before signing up for an extra decade.
In February 1984, Hernandez signed a new deal: five years and $8.4 million, at the time one of the biggest in baseball (a contract that still pays him a deferred sum annually). In October 1998, Piazza decided to stay for seven years and $91 million, the largest contract in the sport’s history to that point.
The bucks changed the burden, Piazza said.
"When I signed the contract, you would think it would be a celebratory moment, but I couldn’t sleep that night. I was like, ‘What did I just do?’ I knew the pressure was going to follow me," he said. "I kind of played out of fear, and that was a thriving motivator for me. I had a fear of looking bad. I had a fear of not performing up to expectations.
"I wanted to prove that I was worth it, if that made sense. So that presents a whole different challenge and a whole different set of expectations and pressure."
Hernandez concurred: "The only anxiety would be a new fan base with an expectation from that fan base. That can create a little bit of anxiety. Living up to the contract. I think the great majority of players want to perform at the highest level, particularly when they get a big contract or on a big contract, that they want to live up to it."
In both cases, they had to be convinced to stay with the Mets.
Hernandez initially was upset about being traded — he briefly considered retiring — but stuck around after buying into the idea that the Mets were close to being good.
Piazza wasn’t upset, but he was deeply skeptical of New York and the Mets. His contract status was a frequent point of conversation in the months between his trade and his signing. Teammates didn’t know if he was one of them or a four-month mercenary. At the start, "everyone was kind of standoffish," he said, before they got to know each other.
"I had to really focus and try to block out the distractions as far as the pending/potential contract and all those things and try to be productive," Piazza said. "I had to really embrace my surroundings and become a New Yorker. And not worry about the season after, not worry about going somewhere else. I was like, ‘I’m here for a reason. And I have to see this through.’"
Francisco Lindor, Shortstop
Games: 777 (six seasons)
Career earnings: $52,392,800
Lindor’s predecessors offered effectively the same advice: Don’t change, be yourself, make sure not to try too hard — all of which is easier said than done.
"You cannot forget who you are, where you came from," Santana said. "In his case, he cannot forget about that smile that he has. Because that’s what I think identifies him in the game, you know? He’s gotta keep smiling and play the game the way he knows how to play."
Piazza added: "It’s a weird thing. We’re expected to do a big part for the team, but naturally, when you start thinking about doing it, it works against you. It’s a weird sort of a dichotomy. You have to stay relaxed."
And Hernandez: "I like what I’ve been seeing."
Piazza stressed that Lindor needs to remember that the responsibility is not all on him, even if he is the best player on his new team.
"You don’t win an Oscar without having supporting actors," he said. "You can’t just do a soliloquy the whole movie."
All of that would seem to blend well with the approach employed by the fun-loving, easygoing Lindor.
"[I’m] someone who plays the game, has fun, is honest when he has to be honest," he said in January. "I’m not trying to get a rope and get everybody to hold the rope and [say], ‘I’ll pull you guys.’ No, we’re all grabbing the rope right next to each other and we’re walking forward."
Playing well — as an individual and as a team — has a way of solving a lot of contract- and hype-related problems.
"Take care of your business on the field," Piazza said. "That’s my only advice. Things have a way of falling into place."