Shortly after arriving at Clover Park on Wednesday, New York Mets pitcher Steven Matz did an about face to go home, rest and fight off a cold — and distance himself from the rumors off trade talks with the crosstown rival Yankees.
Then, in true Twilight Zone fashion, former Mets lefty Mike Hampton popped out of the teams clubhouse in full uniform and took a seat in the dugout.
Just like that the Mets traded one No. 32 for another.
Rod Serling would take a puff on his smoke, let it burn and shoot us that famed crooked smile.
Hampton and former teammate Glendon Rusch were in Port St. Lucie this week as the franchise ramps up its celebration of the 2000 National League championship team. Both former Mets lefties played key roles throughout the season and into the postseason, none more memorable than Hampton’s complete game three-hit shutout against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.
“I was never more locked in,” said Hampton. “I didn’t hear any of the chants. When that final ball landed in Timo’s (Perez) glove it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I just remember throwing my arms up and the celebration began.”
The Mets acquired Hampton after the 1999 season from the Houston Astros. It was his best statistical season of his career, recording a 22-4 win-loss record in 34 starts, a 2.90 ERA and 239 innings pitched.
He arrived in New York with high expectations, but Hampton wobbled through the first two months of the season. Over his first seven starts in 2000, Hampton pitched 38 innings, allowing 26 earned runs and a 2-5 record. On May 3, Hampton pitched 5 1/3 innings, four earned runs, six hits and six walks in an 8-5 loss to the San Francisco Giants.
Hampton, confused and seething, showered and left the ballpark on foot. He walked back to the hotel to clear his head. That walk was a turning point in Hampton’s season.
“I remember walking the streets and seeing homeless people.” said Hampton. “I was able to get some perspective. I realized how lucky I was. I needed to relax and believe in myself.”
Six days later, Hampton took the mound against the Pittsburgh Pirates and fired 8 1/3 innings of shutout baseball with eight strikeouts. Five days later Hampton pitched a complete game against the Florida Marlins in a 5-1 win at Shea Stadium. He recorded a 13-5 record over the final four months of the season.
Hampton returned to San Francisco in October to pitch Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series against the Giants. Time and space didn’t help as Hampton struggled through five innings, allowing five runs in a 5-1 loss. The Mets bounced back after the loss, winning three straight to advance to the NLCS.
After the 2000 season, Hampton entered free agency. Despite a generous offer by the Mets, he would eventually signing with the Colorado Rockies, signing an eight-year, $121 million deal.
“It didn’t come down to the last dollar,” then Mets GM Steve Phillips told the media. “All the clubs were close enough. It came down to other issues, like the chance to win and quality of life for his family.”
Last week in Port St. Lucie Hampton was back in a Mets uniform as the team begins ramping up promotion of the 2000 National League championship team. The appearance didn’t come without the New York media asking about the two-decade old decision to leave New York for Colorado.
He laughed off the question, beaming about his children’s success in the classroom.
But was his professional decision worth it?
“Do I ever think what would have happened if I stayed in New York? Sure. You make decisions some times that you look back on and are regrettable, but at the time they are the right reason for your family at the time. That’s where I was.”