March 3, 2020. The New York Mets were in between games in Port St. Lucie. The rookies were running through drills. The veterans were taking BP and running sprints across the outfield grass while pitchers stretched and threw bullpen sessions on alternate fields.
The big story in baseball circles was not COVID-19, but the ongoing debate over the Houston Astros cheating scandal. Team GM Jeff Lunhow and field manager A.J. Hinch were both terminated just a couple weeks prior to my visit to Mets camp, making former Mets and former Astros pitcher Mike Hampton a perfect target for the Q&A he was destined to face as he bounded through the tunnel, up the steps and into the Mets dugout.
Moments after he saddled up next to former teammate Glendon Rusch on the dugout bench, Hampton was surrounded by New York media. Hampton and Rusch were peppered about the 2000 Mets as the team’s 20th anniversary season neared, but no one asked a single question about sign-stealing or the Astros decision to fire their front office leader and manager.
After the media finished, Hampton spent a few minutes talking and meeting with current Mets. Once the cameras backed out and the 2020 Mets retreated to their workouts, Hampton – in full Mets uniform – hovered over the dugout railing enjoying the sun and watching the proceedings. That’s when I made my move.
I introduced myself and took a spot next to him, hoping to get his reaction to the biggest story in the game. After a few softball queries, I let it fly. Hampton elaborated on sign-stealing both then (when he played) and now. He spoke about being a pitcher and how you have to be careful to not tip your pitches, which is not so much sign-stealing, but being observant to the nuances of the game. Slowly, the conversation spun off into the art of pitching.
My media credentials still hang from my car rearview mirror. The sound of bat connecting with ball is still bright and crisp in my ear. I looked at those credentials today as I sat at a red light. I shook my head and thought, “That was just four months ago, but it feels like forever.” The world changed in a New York minute.