Show of loyalty toward franchise has infielder entering Mets cult lore
By Marty Noble
NEW YORK -- A modest line drive off the bat of Jose Reyes glanced off the glove of the Mets' second baseman and bounced into right field in the first inning on Wednesday night. Citi Field hardly reacted. Those who had reached their seats or at least witnessed the second play of the night stirred ever so slightly. Certainly no one expressed even the smallest measure of dissatisfaction.
And when the sixth man in the Mets' batting order approached the plate in the second inning, he was hailed as if he had been primarily responsible for the Mets' victories in the first two games of their series against the Rockies. The No. 6 batter was No. 4 on the Mets' scorecard, Wilmer Flores. As he jogged back to the dugout following a routine groundout, several folks behind the dugout stood and saluted him.
It's good to be King.
GOOD FOR BUSINESS
MLB.com associate reporter Joe Trezza recently has monitored the effect Wilmer Flores' increasing celebrity has had on how folks dress when they visit Citi Field.
As a kid, I collected player T-shirts from around the league. I still pay attention to what's being worn.
Every night while walking around the center-field concourse for dinner, I take a sort of inventory of the T-shirts and team merchandise and what-not fans wear.
On July 30, the day after Wilmer Flores famously wept on the field, mistakenly believing he was about to be traded, and a day before Flores' walk-off home run against the Nationals, I saw more Flores jerseys than ever before. Mainly young girls, wearing a blue top with orange lettering above No. 4.
When I told Flores, he rolled his eyes. "They're probably thinking, 'Oh! He's so sensitive,'" Flores said.
Almost two weeks -- and at least eight standing ovations later -- while on another stroll, I spotted a man wearing an old No. 4 Mets jersey with Flores' name taped over the original name. He had sliced up a piece of printer paper, written "FLORES" and created a new way to support his hero.
-- Joe Trezza
About two weeks have passed since Flores wasn't exiled by the Mets, two weeks since he provided the most poignant moment of the team's U-turn season. And he retains status as Flushing royalty. The standing ovations for him have diminished in frequency and fervor. But any time Flores succeeds on defense or at bat -- or when he walks to the cage for batting practice, for that matter -- he prompts cheers, applause and more requests for autographs than the typical 24-year-old .250 hitter/role player.
The tears Flores shed at shortstop on July 29 have altered the way he is perceived as much as the way he has been received. He has become something other than a player, a symbol of loyalty, honesty and other qualities we hope to see in our children. The big Citi has embraced Flores since he made public his affection for the franchise that has employed him since he was 16. Who knows? He may have changed this part of the city as well.
How often does a ballpark give its heart to an everyman player? For a player who isn't special or hasn't done anything box score-noteworthy in the preceding hours? For a non-hero player? That's what Flores was before he wept. He had lost his regular job, and his season had stalled. Flo was told --- albeit by folks near the on-deck circle -- that he was a goner, or at least a Brewer.
Now, Flores' affection for the Mets is a matter of video record, and that affection is regularly reciprocated by the team's constituency, even in Florida last week. Flores has changed from non-hero to folk hero because of his reaction to a near-divorce. Now, it's cool to root for him, like it was cool to salute Mike Baxter weeks after he had saved Johan Santana's no-hitter. But Flores' changed identity is likely to last much longer than Baxter's. Even if the Mets trade him, the next time he plays in New York, his presence will be noted. Flores will be cheered. Just because he let his emotions take move. How human of him! How wonderful of him to share his unspoken thoughts.
So now, the ballpark watches Flores' every move and at times cheers him for showing up. How is this burg supposed to retain its biggest-baddest-meanest image?
For sure, Queens hasn't turned into St. Louis, where Cardinals red is celebrated at every turn, or Green Bay, where everybody wears or says cheese. The borough remains part of a cynical city that must be convinced before it gives its heart. But now folks here have distinguished themselves from their brethren in the other baseball cities in the Northeast. We have proof of Philadelphia's hate-love relationship with Santa Claus, and there have been times when Boston hasn't appreciated Rudolph.
But now, because of Flores' waterworks, NYC has shown unmistakable signs of sentimentality. Ed Whitson, Carl Pavano and Vince Coleman would be stunned.
Turns out, this city likes its heroes -- non- and folk -- to be vulnerable. Bravado works, but so do tears.
Flo and Eddie
"I know the kid must have been hurting that night," a former Met said on Wednesday night. "I signed when I was 17, and the Mets were the only thing I knew."
The words came from Ed Kranepool, a Met in uniform from 1962-79 and a born and bred New Yorker.
"I heard I was being traded in '69," Kranepool said. "And I heard it again the next year. It would have been real hard to take. I don't know what happened. Maybe [board chairman M. Donald Grant] or [inaugural Mets owner] Mrs. Payson put a stop to it. They were great to me and took care of me."
Kranepool, still only 70, was at Citi the night Flores wept, and he was there on Wednesday. "Usually," he said, "the guys who are treated like this kid is being treated have been around for a while."
Kranepool was similarly received in the final years of his career, when he served almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter. When his helmeted head became visible as he stood on the steps of the dugout at Shea, the "Ed-dee, Ed-dee" chants began. Rusty Staub, immensely popular anywhere he played, was treated the same way at Shea during his second tenure with the team.
And, lest we overlook the Bronx, it should be noted that the Yankees -- the cold, corporate Yankees -- experienced something akin to the Flores lovefest. It was in the summer of 1979. The back page of the New York Post carried a story in the paper's final edition that reported that Roy White, in the final year of his fine 15-year career (all with the Yankees, of course), felt unloved and under-appreciated. That night, the Stadium saluted White with an extended standing ovation when he pinch-hit.
And that sort of response continued for weeks at home games. After 18 summers, White became a "can-do-no-wrong" guy, if only for a couple of months. Flores has appeared in merely 208 games with the Mets. Can his "do-no-wrong" status last? What happens when he hits into a double play with the bases loaded? Joe DiMaggio made four errors in a doubleheader. He was cheered the next day. Can Flores hit in 56 straight games?
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.