Born in the 50s

The following essay was submitted by longtime reader Edward Hoyt. If you’d like to contribute your own takes on Met uni matters, and especially if it’s up to the level of excellence displayed here, feel free to pitch me at mbtn01 (at) yahoo dot-com.

There’s always an interesting lede when a player returns as a coach to a team he made a mark with as a player. If he was a particularly good player, his homecoming is celebrated with some level of excitement. If he had previously passed through without distinction, it can still be a feel-good story with a potential for redemption.

But after that first day’s story, there’s frequently a minor tragedy — visible on a daily basis — when that player gets his uniform, and it underscores that that whatever value a man might represent as a coach, he is still just a coach. The players get the low numbers and coaches get a number in the fifties … or worse. Leftover numbers.

With most coaches, we shrug. This is their lot in life. But with the coach who had previously played for the team, what heart isn’t touched by the cruel marginalization of seeing Mookie Wilson’s 1 become 51, of seeing Bud Harrelson’s 3 displaced by 53, and Howard Johnson’s familiar 20 being twisted and distorted into a 52 (wtf?)? These fleet youthful birds of yesteryear return to us with the anonymous digits of backup linebackers and special teams long snappers — easy-to-release taxi-squad regulars.

So it is with a ray of spring sunshine that we today see a youthful Jeremy Hefner return as pitching coach (nearly an effing half century younger than his predecessor) in the same 53 he brandished as a player. He had the small grace to come to the team under circumstances no more dramatic than the hiring of a coach (a minor league contract in January 2014), got a number that reflected that, and briefly flourished in it. But when his status upgraded itself to rotation mainstay for about a full season split between 2012 and 2013, his number stayed the same. So his return as a coach in such high digits is not a dim a signal that he can tack on a few more paychecks by cashing in on a large legacy, but that he’s here to add some more substance to a small one — the same guy in the same uniform with the same number on a somewhat different road.

When last heard from in a Mets spring training camp back in 2014, Hef was a bit player in one of those stupid Matt Harvey dustups that always seemed perfectly timed for a day when there was no other news. The team was settling into their spring digs and Harv decided to complain that rehabbing players were not dressing next to the active players training and preparing for games. Now, there are certainly sound arguments for and against keeping everybody integrated even if they’re on a different springtime agenda, but rather than make an internal appeal, Harv decided to take his case to the media. And to make it clear this snit wasn’t about him, he decided to drag poor Hefner into the argument. The Mets are marginalizing me and Hef, the two Tommy John rehabilitation cases, Harvey complained.

Hefner, suitably, seemed embarrassed to be dragged into the story, presumably happy to still be receiving a big league salary that was now existentially threatened — his status even more tenuous than the number 53 implied. And when that status exploded alongside a second UCL tear before his rehab was done, ending his career, the story was about whether the fall of Harvey’s rehab partner would serve as an object lesson for him.

It was always about Harvey.

But now, released from the Angels and finding no suitors this offseason, it is The Dark Knight facing the doorway of oblivion, non-roster infielder Max Moroff getting little attention in Harvey’s old 33, and Jeremy Hefner returning to his 53, ready to build on a legacy that is now all his own. While other players returning as coaches have their light dimmed by a number assignment in the 50s, Hef is shining all the brighter.

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