PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The sight of Yoenis Cespedes and Noah Syndergaard on horseback this past week was something out of Sandy Alderson’s nightmare portfolio. How else could the Mets possibly tempt fate? Lucas Duda wrestling alligators? Letting Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom shoot off the postgame fireworks display?
As longtime observers of the Mets know, stranger things have happened, be it in Port St. Lucie or the team’s previous Grapefruit League outpost at St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Field.
David Wright, the team’s captain, never made it onto one of Cespedes’ trusty steeds, but he didn’t sound all that worried about Syndergaard’s shaky gallop in from the minor-league complex.
“At least he was wearing a helmet,” Wright said.
What a week it was for the Mets, with Cespedes changing sports cars as frequently as underwear, marching two of his own horses into camp and also buying a grand champion hog at the county fair for the princely sum of $7,000.
For pure entertainment value, we asked where this year’s festivities ranked in the Mets’ pantheon of spring training spectacles, and the closest rival was the mystical pitcher, Sidd Finch.
Finch, of course, was the creation of author George Plimpton, who penned the original story for Sports Illustrated in March 1985. It was done as an April Fools’ Day gag, but the Mets played along as if the Tibetan-born, French horn-playing fireballer was a real camp addition. (Finch, by the way, supposedly threw 168 mph.)
The joke went so far as to have co-owners Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon sign off on it, along with general manager Frank Cashen, who usually didn’t go for such shenanigans. The Mets issued Finch the No. 21, gave him a locker between George Foster and Darryl Strawberry, then welcomed the media hordes to St. Pete.
“A sports editor of a New York paper called me complaining, saying how did you give this story to Sports Illustrated?” longtime Mets public relations guru Jay Horwitz recalled this past week. “The veteran guys were taken in for a day or two. It was great. You could never do something like that today with Twitter and social media. It was great while it lasted.”
Horwitz said they went as far as to burn a hole in Ronn Reynolds’ catcher’s mitt, the result of Finch’s blistering fastball. To perpetuate the ruse, the Mets insisted that Finch threw his bullpen sessions at night, in a covered tent, so he couldn’t be watched.
Despite having a Mets team with playoff aspirations, to say 1985 was a simpler time would be an understatement.
“I thought it was kind of silly,” Keith Hernandez said. “I never quite understood it. I remember being very perplexed that he got a big story in Sports Illustrated. But I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it.”
Some might say the same about the Mets’ sideshow this year, which was only slightly more believable than someone throwing a 168-mph fastball. But for all the distractions the Mets have endured in spring training, the Cespedes petting zoo/auto show is fairly minor compared to the jungle of legal entanglements the franchise found itself in during the past.
There were the 1992 rape allegations that had reporters crawling through Port St. Lucie’s few nightspots, and Shane Spencer and Karim Garcia being pinched for public urination and also being accused of assaulting a pizza deliveryman.
Horwitz also remembered Bernard Gilkey, at a news conference to apologize for a DUI arrest, blaming the PR man for not getting him a better rental car. Not the best way to fill in those boring gaps between Grapefruit League games.
“I never liked spring training here in St. Lucie,” Hernandez said Friday before the Mets’ exhibition opener at Tradition Field. “Not a whole lot to do. We worked out all day and you just passed the time after that.”
During the past 30 years, the Tradition Field neighborhood has sprouted a few hotels, a Chipotle and a Starbucks, but the everyday existence for the Mets remains relatively unchanged. Show up around 8 a.m., take the field at 10, maybe play a few innings that afternoon or — depending on seniority — stay back to work out as the fringe Mets hit the road for a 90-minute bus ride.
Keep in mind, Cespedes took center stage in the days before the Mets’ Grapefruit opener March 3, usually a flat period as the players finally start gearing up for the long-awaited games.
The timing of it all was fine with Alderson, and with Terry Collins announcing his desire to return the focus back to baseball, the Mets got their fun in under the wire.
“I think that was important, to separate the phases of spring training,” Alderson said Friday. “And making sure that once the games started, everyone understood — all of us understood — that it was about preparation. It had always been that way. But now it needed to be the central theme.”
Still, the general manager made a good point. Coming into camp as the defending National League champs was not a very familiar feeling for this group, and maybe changing the conversation for a little while wasn’t the worst thing for the Mets. Deflecting everyone’s attention with the souped-up Slingshots sure seemed to work.
“Before this all started with the cars, the theme was, there’s a target on our backs,” Alderson said. “And for seven or eight days, people weren’t really concerned about that issue. It was more about how tricked-out the car might be tomorrow. In that way, maybe it was a positive.”
As captain, Wright is in charge of looking at the extracurricular stuff with a more critical eye. But even if he wasn’t out there waiting his turn to ride a horse, Wright didn’t see any harm in it. He’s been around for the other stuff, — the allegations of blood doping against Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, Daniel Murphy’s homophobic remarks of a year ago, to name a few. What Cespedes was doing, as parking-lot ringleader and hog purchaser, just served to break up the monotony.
“It’s nice to break it up with some laughs and have some fun,” Wright said. “As Allen Iverson said, we’re talking about practice. Not a game — practice. Once the games start, people naturally get a little more focused. You’re talking about six weeks, coming in here and doing the same thing, over and over again. You kind of need that to break it up to keep everybody sane.”
Or make everybody believe that Cespedes is sort of crazy. For nearly a full week, what Cespedes was driving overshadowed the rest of camp, creating a back-page frenzy that nobody saw coming.
“His personality is big and bold, and it’s not good to try to get somebody to change that,” Wright said. “The guy likes nice things. He’s got some cool interests. And I think the guys got a kick out of checking out cars you only see in magazines. And seeing Jay Horwitz on a horse — the poor horse. But it’s fun. I’ll take riding horses and nice cars over some of the other things I’ve been through in spring training.”