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End of An Era: Mike Hampton Retires

I remember the Mets acquiring Mike Hampton just like it was yesterday. I was twelve years-old and on vacation in Cancun, Mexico with my family for Christmas break. Before we hit the beach, my brother and I decided to watch a little ESPN, dubbed in Spanish of course, to see what was going on in the world of American sports. When we found ESPN on the television, the news ticker flashed an unthinkable message: “Mets trade for pitcher Mike Hampton.” Mike frickin’ Hampton. The thought of adding an “ace” to the likes of Al Leiter, Rick Reed, Glendon Rusch, and Bobby Jones immediately bestowed confidence in a team that had, for the majority of my life, let me down. In my mind, Mike Hampton was more than just a left-handed pitcher who had won twenty-two games the year before with the Houston Astros–he was a savior.

The New York Mets by no means “stole” Hampton, and outfielder Derek Bell, from the Astros. In fact, Mets General Manager Steve Phillips surrendered two of his top major league-ready players in Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel–but to his credit, the Mets were rightfully in a “win now” mindset. Cedeno had been an important piece to the Mets run in 1999, posting a .313/.396/.408 line with 4 HR, 36 RBI, 90 R, and 66 SB on the season. The speedster had shared the lead-off duties with veteran Ricky Henderson, and was a lock to hold that position for many years to come. Dotel, who would eventually become one of the more steady relief pitchers in baseball, was then seen as a future flame-throwing starting pitcher. The righty pitched to the tune of a 5.38 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 8 Wins, and a walk-heavy 1.73 K/BB ratio in his rookie season with New York. As exciting as both Cedeno and Dotel were in their own right, they were no match for the stability Hampton brought to the Mets rotation.

I counted down the days until Opening Day against the Chicago Cubs on March 29, 2000. My parents let me stay up uncharacteristically late to watch the game since it was being play at the Tokyo Dome in Japan. Hampton looked great in his Mets uniform, but his body language suggested he was distracted and uncomfortable. The southpaw kept kicking at the foreign mound, obviously upset with the different dirt standards between American and Japanese grounds-crews. The obedient Japanese grounds-crew tended to the seemingly unsatisfactory mound, but despite the dumping, shoveling, and smoothing, it didn’t help Hampton’s debut. The Mets lost their first game of the season at the hand of Hampton, who surrendered 4 hits, 2 earned runs over 5 innings, while striking out just 1, and walking an astounding 9 batters. He even hit 1 batter to boot. Judging by his first outing, both Hampton and the Mets for that matter, were doomed.

But all the negativity and pessimism surrounding the opening series in Japan quickly evaporated as Hampton began to prove his value and reminded fans why Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel were no longer in orange and blue. The lefty starter did not lose a bout in the month of April, posting 4 wins, and lowering his ERA to 3.86. All of a sudden, the Mets were no longer looking like the franchise who perennially promised big things, only to show small results. While the Mets still couldn’t catch their long-time rival Atlanta Braves to capture the Division Title, their 94 wins were good enough to grant them the Wild Card spot in the playoffs.

Hampton, who posted a rock-solid 3.14 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 15 Wins, and 1.53 K/BB ratio during the regular season, was handed the ball in Game 1 against the San Francisco Giants in the National League Divisional Series (NLDS). The ace struggled in his only game against the stacked Giants lineup, giving up 6 hits and 5 earned runs in 5.3 IP, and recording the Mets only loss in the series. The Mets eventually came back to win the NLDS, and moved onto the National League Championship Series (NLCS) against the St. Louis Cardinals, who had surprisingly swept the Atlanta Braves.

Again, Hampton was given the important first game duties, yet unlike the first time around, he did not disappoint. The lefty shutout Mark McGwire and the Cardinals over 7 innings–even recording a hit of his own and scoring a run. The Mets would go on to win Game 2 and Game 4, and turned to masterful Mike to pitch what would be the World Series-clinching Game 5. Similar to Game 1, Hampton again shutdown the Cardinals, but this time, he dazzled with a complete game shutout. Despite his lacking heroics against the Giants, Hampton had just won 2 pivotal games for the Mets. Subsequently, he was unanimously voted as the MVP for his clutch performances.

The pitcher who had looked so off-balance and mediocre in his debut at the Tokyo Dome in front of 55,000 screaming Japanese baseball fans, was now focused, and intent of giving Mets fans their first taste of a World Series since 1986. The New York Mets were headed to the World Series, but unlike their previous National League competitors, they were about to face a beast previously unseen–The New York Yankees.

The “Subway Series” created a tense climate in school hallways across the entire city. Most of my friends (and New Yorkers for that matter) were Yankees fans, leaving just a small minority of avid Mets hopefuls. As soon as the realization of the “Subway Series” hit, I developed a semi-hatred for people who were, not too long ago, my best friends. I wasn’t used to these “war time” feelings, but for older generations, the “Subway Series” was old news. Before 2000, there had been a plethora of “Subway Series”-type matchups between the New York Yankees and either the Brooklyn Dodgers or the New York Giants, as far back as the 1920′s. More often than not, they resulted in terrific, earth shaking loses for non-Yankees fans.

On the surface, the Mets were no match for the powerhouse New York Yankees. Aside from being the most winning franchise in the history of the game, the Yankees had also won three World Series rings in the past four seasons, including two in a row. With giants like Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Roger Clemens, and Mariano Rivera in tow, the comparatively lowly Mets were undoubtedly the obvious underdogs.

From here, the story becomes quite glum. As most people predicted, the Yankees eventually beat the Mets, and were crowned champions after just a 5-game series. Even though the Mets were only out-scored by 3 runs in-total during the World Series, phrases such as “severe beating,” “relentless murder,” and “swept the floor” were often, and unfairly associated with the series–in favor of the Yankees, of course. The Mets were only able to churn out one modest 4-2 win, mostly thanks to Robin Ventura’s timely bat, Rick Reed’s respectable 6 innings of 2 earned-run ball, and the Mets bullpen’s insistence of keeping Bombers off the bases.

Mike Hampton, who pitched like the second coming of Jesus Christ in the NLCS, looked more like Jose de Jesus in the World Series. The supposed savior pitched 6 forgettable innings, allowing 8 hits, 4 earned-runs, and 5 free passes. No one knew it at the time, but it would be the last outing by Mike Hampton in a New York Mets uniform. The free-agent pitcher left the Mets in the off-season, and signed a record eight-year, $121 million contract with the Colorado Rockies.

At the time, I was dumbfounded. “How could he leave the Mets now–we were so close,” I asked myself and other equally depressed Mets fans. But really, who can blame him? The Rockies gave him all the security and money a baseball player with a family could want. In addition, the Mets would use the compensatory draft pick on a 19 year-old third baseman from Chesapeake, Virginia named David Wright. But David Wright wasn’t even a twinkle in any Mets fans eyes. We all felt as though the savior had betrayed us.

In retrospect, not re-signing Mike Hampton was easily one of the best decisions (or non-decisions) the Mets could have ever made. The starting pitcher only lasted two seasons with the Rockies, before being shipped to the Florida Marlins, and then to the Atlanta Braves. In 2005, Hampton started what would become a long string of career-altering injuries. The former Met was forced to opt for Tommy John surgery in September 2005, and missed all of 2006 rehabbing. Upon his return in March 2007, the pitcher tore his oblique and re-injured his elbow during the rehab process, which led to yet another lost season. Seemingly healthy for the first time in three seasons, Hampton unfortunately strained his left pectoral muscle in April 2008, pushing his debut to July–only to head back to the DL again for the season. In September 2009, Hampton underwent full rotator cuff surgery, and missed almost all of 2010.

The veteran pitcher surprisingly re-emerged in August 2010 on a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and pitched 4.3 innings out of their bullpen. Hoping at one more shot at the bigs, Hampton was invited to compete in Spring Training this season for the Diamondbacks, but upon not making the cut, the lefty decided–after 16 seasons and countless major injuries–to hang up his cleats.

Hampton’s career 148 Wins, 4.06 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and 1.54 K/BB ratio aren’t the statistics you’d expect from a so-called “ace”–a status he earned from his Houston Astros days–but that lefty from Crystal River, Florida will always make me reminisce about the 2000 New York Mets, and how he gave my twelve year-old self a previously unfamiliar sense of hope.

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Tags: Ben Berkon Cedeno Colorado Rockies Mike Hampton Dotel Hampton Hampton Retires Mets Mike Hampton Mike Hampton Retires Mike Hampton Roger Cedeno Octavio Dotel Mike Hampton Trade New York New York Mets Octavio Dotel Roger Cedeno

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