PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
In our estimation, it was virtually impossible for Noah Syndergaard to become more popular in the eyes of adoring Mets fans.
The guy eats bowls of venison for lunch. Dresses up like Thor on a Manhattan sidewalk. Pilots an extremely funny Twitter account.
And sure, throwing 100 mph is fun, too.
But Syndergaard took his superhero game to a new level Friday by uttering words that instantly shot the Flushing infatuation meter up to 11. After his first Grapefruit League start at First Data Field, when asked if he regrets passing on the World Baseball Classic, he took the opportunity to, well, drop the hammer, so to speak.
“Nope,” he replied. “Not one bit.”
And why would that be?
“Because I’m a Met,” Syndergaard shot back. “And ain’t nobody made it to the Hall of Fame or win a World Series playing in the WBC.”
OK, then. No waffling there. And we’re fairly positive that Syndergaard isn’t the only player to feel that way. Last we checked, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper won’t be suiting up for the United States, either. They just weren’t quite as colorful in their explanations. More along the lines of “thanks, but no thanks.”
But that’s what makes Syndergaard who he is, a 6-6 shaggy blond Terminator who walks and talks the same game. Earlier in this same interview session, he spoke about how much he is using his lethal changeup to “Tasmanian devil” a hitter, basically corkscrewing him as he flails hopelessly at the pitch.
Ask the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez what that felt like Friday. Just when you’re worrying about the 100-mph heater or 93-mph slider, here comes the 90-mph power change. That’s video game stuff. Blatantly unfair is what it is.
That figured to be the story Friday. Syndergaard, beefed up from a winter of barbells and deer meat, cruises through a pleasing, if relatively uneventful, spring training debut with his arm still attached. Terry Collins breathes a sigh of relief, and the Mets can start looking ahead to Jacob deGrom’s first turn Saturday against the Astros in West Palm.
But this Syndergaard is nothing like the timid 20-year-old who first showed up on the back fields of the Mets’ complex with his parents in 2013, fresh off the R.A. Dickey trade that got him to the Mets. Same hair, same height. But the confidence now is off the charts, and Syndergaard doesn’t mind flexing it, not when you have the real muscle to back it up.
That goes for sharing his opinion, too, and selfishly, we can’t get enough of it. Syndergaard’s words aside, plenty of WBC vets have rings — Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Alex Rod riguez, to name a few — and one, Ken Griffey Jr., was inducted into the Hall of Fame last July. But that’s not really what Syndergaard meant.
The WBC essentially is a marketing tool for Major League Baseball, a good idea in concept but without an appropriate spot on the calendar. And the players have very little to gain, if anything, by participating.
Some, like Jose Reyes, have a blast playing with their buddies from back home before competing against them during the regular season.
But for young players such as Syndergaard, with dazzling futures ahead, the WBC is a distracting detour from goals they’ve been conditioned their whole lives to shoot for. The WBC is an exhibition that takes place inside another exhibition — the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues — for what boils down to six weeks of practice for the real games.
In Syndergaard’s view, the WBC isn’t a means to the end. Nothing that happens there, zero, would help him get to where he wants to go, which is back to the World Series, and getting a ring next time.
As for the Hall of Fame, it’s great that Syndergaard pictures himself in Cooperstown someday. Why not dream big at 24?
After what the Mets have been through in recent years, just stringing together a few healthy seasons would be at the top of their wish list.
So far, so good.
“I just feel real comfortable on the mound,” Syndergaard said. “My legs feel stable and powerful.”
And planted firmly in Port St. Lucie for the next few weeks.