Port St. Lucie
THERE WERE TIMES when Todd Zeile would sit in front of his locker and talk
with Mike Hampton at his adjacent locker about experiencing the energy, the
clutter and the diversity of New York for the first time. Zeile, from Southern
California, lived much of the season in a loft in the Flatiron District.
Hampton, from country Florida, lived on Fifth Avenue near the park. Hampton is
gone, his tracks suggesting he never was comfortable and wasn't coming back to
the Mets in any case. Zeile had the most rewarding year of his career.
The Bronx is up and the Battery is down, and the subway runs in a hole in
the ground, and from his "cool loft" on 17th Street and Fifth, Zeile had his
great adventure, much of it stemming from the team bubbling at the Shea Stadium
stop on the No. 7 subway. That's the line that upset John Rocker.
Zeile and his wife, Julianne, son Garrett, now almost 8, and Hannah, almost
4, lived in New York without a car, a remarkable departure for a ballplayer in
this day and age when price is no object. After a night game there was always
a place to eat. They ate a lot of pizza at John's; big nights were at Da
Tomasso. There was the Museum of Natural History with the dinosaurs, and the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was live theater, and the Bronx Zoo, where
Todd did a reading for children.
And they rode the subway. Garrett attended the Little Red School House in
Greenwich Village. "I wanted him to be exposed to the different cultures and
races and economic classes," Zeile said. It represented, he said, "New York as
a melting pot."
For Zeile it was Curious George Goes to the City. He would take the No. 4
train to Grand Central and transfer to the No. 7 to Shea. Some days he'd take
Garrett. "He loved the train," Zeile said. "When he came, it was
people-watching-the changing sights and the people." That diversity intimidates
some players or just turns them off. "It was neat for me to watch him," Zeile
He did this while playing 153 games of on-the-job training at first base
for a team that went to the World Series. It was his eighth team in the last
six seasons, which demands some adaptability besides his stated eagerness to
play under the scrutiny of New York that makes so many players cringe.
"It was one of the most fun and rewarding seasons of my career," Zeile
said. "My numbers could have been better. I had a dreadful August and
September. I take pride about contributing to the team's success. I make my
judgment on that."
The deeper the Mets went into the postseason, the more he enjoyed the team.
He drove in eight runs in the five-game series against St. Louis that vaulted
the Mets into the World Series, where he hit .400.
He hit 22 home runs during the season, which was about his norm. His .268
batting average and 79 RBI were below. But there was the team thing after all
those moving vans and searching for apartments and houses and packing and
This is not the comic-book ballplayer. Zeile is a bit of trivia as a
make him a better player. He is signed through next season, so his paycheck
wasn't going to be affected by statistics at the age of 35.
"At this stage, the only thing left is whether I help the team win," he
said. "We did a great job of picking each other up. Relations between players
was solid, and I'm confident it will continue." He was clear in warning about
trading for Gary Sheffield.
Last season, he said, "was the best I've experienced at collectively
playing for one goal. Certain young players who could benefit from personal
stats, and bench players who wanted to play more, were always, always pulling
for me. You don't always have that. It's especially difficult in New York."
He tried in subtle ways to open Hampton's mind to understanding that with
the worst of the worst in New York also came the best of the best, and
discovering he could be comfortable somewhere in our suburbs ringing the city.
This season the Zeiles will live in Greenwich, Conn., not Greenwich Village. A
boy going on 8 needs a place to skateboard and ride his bike, but the city is
still accessible and suburbia is still New York. "I knew Mike didn't like it,"
Zeile said. "I think his wife was intimidated from the beginning. I hoped the
further we went as a team, it might put an anchor in him."
Ultimately, Hampton went for the higher altitude and lower pressure of
Colorado. As a free agent after all those moving vans through Middle America,
Zeile sought the accountability. As New York affords a star privacy he could
never find in St. Louis, it does not guarantee applause just for the uniform a
"One of the great things about New York," Zeile observed, "is it makes you
really look in the mirror for something besides what you want to find. People
complain that they're over-scrutinized unfairly. I like the passion of the fans
and the media, of being expected to perform every day. Some people can't
handle being accountable for what they do. New York demands more."
For the right man, it gives back more. That's why we're here. It's not for