Tommy Hunter, who thought his pitching days were over after multiple surgeries last year to repair six herniations in his back, made it back to the majors Friday when the Mets promoted him from Triple-A Syracuse.
“It’s kinda wild,” said Hunter, a 35-year-old righthanded reliever. “I don’t think a lot of people understand how messed up I was.”
He last appeared in a game in May 2021, when he was with the Mets, collected the first hit of his 14-season MLB career and jubilantly declared that he felt like “a real baseball player.”
The next day, his back “said ‘no go,’ ” Hunter recalled. It had been bothering him, but this was worse. The Mets put him on the injured list with “lower back pain” the next day, transferred him to the 60-day IL the next month and traded him to the Rays to help offset salary in the Rich Hill deal on July 23. He became a free agent in November.
Those technicalities were secondary, if that, to life concerns. He couldn’t feel his left leg. “I had no idea that you could be in that much pain,” said Hunter, whose sons are 6, 4 and 1. “I was trying to play with my kids again. I was trying to walk. I was trying to do important things, like feed the baby. I was struggling . . . ”
Baseball was less an afterthought and more not a thought at all — until February, months removed from his operations. He was in his basement throwing batting practice to his oldest son when he realized: “That didn’t hurt.” The wheels started turning. He couldn’t help but wonder. His wife, Ellen, encouraged him: “You want to just give it a chance and go get a picture with the little one?”
Their youngest was the only member of the family not to have a photo with Hunter on a major-league field. Hunter set out to change that, relocating to Palm Beach County, Florida, to train at Cressey Sports Performance, a renowned facility. By late April, he had a minor-league deal with the Mets.
Hunter pitched OK in the minors — a 4.61 ERA in eight games, better lately — and the Mets called him up for the beginning of their series against the Marlins. They demoted reliever Jake Reed to Syracuse and designated infielder Gosuke Katoh to clear roster room.
That reunited Hunter with Buck Showalter, whom he called his favorite manager ever after their years together in Baltimore, and his 2021 Mets teammates. When Pete Alonso came over for a huge hug in the locker room Friday, Hunter told him his 6-year-old had been wearing his Alonso No. 20 shirsey all day. “I want them to wear Dad’s shirt,” Alonso told him.
Hunter’s family will be in town by Saturday. He’ll get a picture with the little one.
“Life is about chances,’’ he said. “You gotta take them. Put your foot in the door, see if it happens. That’s the approach I took. Luckily it’s panned out, to be here back in the clubhouse. I’m pretty happy about it.”