This past weekend, several members of the 2001 Mets team gathered at Citi Field to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Mike Piazza and John Franco were among some of the bigger names, but one player who spent some time at the ballpark this weekend was Todd Zeile. Although he wasn’t always the focus of a team that included Piazza, Robin Ventura and Mike Hampton, Zeile played a key role in the 2000 National League Championship team and had one of the more memorable ends to his Major League career.
By the time Zeile came to the Mets as a free agent prior to the 2000 season, he had already played for seven other teams, coming up as a catcher but spending most of his time at either third or first base (primarily third). The Amazins needed to replace John Olerud, who would sign with the Seattle Mariners, and Zeile was coming off one of his most productive seasons, having hit .293/.354/.488 with 24 homers for the Texas Rangers. Replacing Olerud was no easy task, offensively (the man had a .425 OBP and 63 homers over the course of three years with the Mets) or defensively (Olerud was part of the “Best Infield Ever” and sported a defensive WAR, according to Baseball Reference, of 1.1 in 1999). However, in the year 2000, Zeile proved he was up for the challenge.
Primarily hitting sixth in the order behind Ventura, Zeile hit .268/.356/.467 with 22 long balls and a wRC+ of 110. In addition, he drew 74 walks against 85 strikeouts. In addition to his offense, Zeile also stepped up on defense. Playing exclusively first base for the first time in his career, Zeile excelled and was worth 10 fielding runs above average (according to Total Zone; Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs saved were not calculated in 2000). Overall, Zeile compiled an fWAR of 2.9 that season.
In the playoffs, Zeile continued to contribute. After going just 1-14 in the division series, Zeile went 7-19 with a homer, three doubles and eight RBI in the NLCS against his original team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Zeile continued to hit in the World Series, going 8-20 with two doubles.
Expectations were high for the team in 2001, but Zeile could not completely replicate his 2000 performance. Although his average (.266) and OBP (.359) were similar to the prior season, his home run total dropped to 10, causing his slugging percentage to plummet to .373. Following the season, Zeile was dealt to the Colorado Rockies as part of a three team trade with the Milwaukee Brewers that brought the Mets Jeromy Burnitz (again), Jeff D’Amico and others.
But Zeile’s Mets career was not over. After tours of duty with the Rockies, Yankees and Expos, Zeile returned to Queens in 2004, his final season. He started 75 games that season and hit .233/.319/.356 with nine homers in what was a lost season for the Amazins. But at the very least, Zeile ended his career with a bang.
With the team far out of the playoff picture, Zeile actually caught two games in 2004 (he also pitched an inning earlier that year), one of which was on the season’s final day. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Zeile swatted a three run homer off Montreal’s Claudio Vargas, putting the Mets up 7-1. It was Zeile’s final plate appearance, putting him in the same elite company as 44 other big leaguers, including Ted Williams. “You did it exactly the way it was supposed to be done,” Zeile said of the homer, “because there’s no better exclamation point or affirmation that it was time to go than that at-bat.”
Zeile is now retired and holds the distinction of the most home runs hit by any player whose last name begins with the letter “Z.” His time with the Mets may have been relatively brief, but without him, they very well may not have made the World Series in 2000. For his contributions to that team, his work during the relief effort following September 11th, and his overall personality, Zeile will have a special place in my mind among former Mets.
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