I remember the moment my heart broke. It was December of 1991 and I’d recently turned 12. I was in my bed, about to stay home from school with a cold. My sister burst in to my room to give me the bad news. The Mets just got two-time Cy Young Award winner Brett Saberhagen and player to be forgotten later Bill Pecota. But to do so, they gave up Keith Miller, Kevin McReynolds and my favorite player, Gregg Jefferies.
I’d been a Jefferies fan since his almost-rookie-season rookie season (he didn’t have the plate appearances needed to technically be a rookie).
Jefferies was a late call-up in 1988. In his first 13 games, Jefferies hit .462 and slugged .962, helping the Mets clinch the NL East. Maybe it’s because I was 9 years old and he wore No. 9. Or maybe it was because he hit five home runs in 13 games. But Jefferies was my guy.
1988 was the season that cemented my Mets fandom. While I remember actively trying to watch the Mets as early as 1983, and I remember being excited throughout the 1986 season, by 1988 I was old enough to start forming my own opinions, instead of echoing those of my older brother. He wasn’t a big fan of Jefferies – but I was. Gregg Jefferies beat out David Cone for my favorite player, and I began wearing number 9 in little league.
But just three years later, Jefferies was gone. If I wasn’t already feeling sick, that news would have been enough to keep me home from school.
Jefferies’ time on the Mets was not easy. While I didn’t understand it back then, Jefferies’ poor fielding led to behind-the-scenes (and occasionally, in front of the mic) arguments with teammates. Add in the subsequent media scrutiny, and the future king was no longer considered royalty, unless you count the trade to Kansas City.
The early '90s were a difficult time for Mets fans on the whole. Sure, there’s always been an element of circus in our lives. But the early '90s were the pinnacle of ridiculous.
Vince Coleman threw a lit firecracker into a group of fans, injuring three children. Bret Saberhagen sprayed bleach at reporters. Dwight Gooden failed a drug test, before failing another. Anthony Young racked up 27 consecutive losses. Bobby Bonilla existed. I trace it all back to 1991 – to that moment my heart broke. For me, that trade was the beginning of the end.
Cone was jettisoned less than a season later. And while I dabbled with the idea of rooting for the Yankees, I couldn't do it. The Mets may have broken my heart, but they were still my team. My frustrating, frustrating team. It was good to grow up in the early '90s as a Mets fan – every child should learn to deal with loss.
Meanwhile, I kept tabs on Jefferies. I watched him go to the Cardinals, a team smart enough to take a guy plagued by throwing errors and move him to first base. And then I watched, like a proud parent, as he not only made the All-Star Game, but started it. Everything I’d been telling my friends (and my brother) about Jefferies came true. He hit .342, competed for the batting title, stole 46 bases, and was an MVP candidate. This was the Gregg Jefferies I’d been rooting for more than half of my cognizant life.
By the time injuries began shortening Jefferies’ career, the Mets were competitive again, even playing in the World Series the year Jefferies retired. I lost track of him – I read he was coaching high school baseball somewhere in California, but that’s all I knew. He was retired, and I had grown into an adult. The moment had passed.
For the next 14 years, I worked on my career as a standup comedian. Baseball was still a big part of my life – like in 2006, when I would race to watch the playoffs as soon as my shows ended. I wrote for Sports Illustrated, and contributed to Maxim and the New York Times. But I barely thought of Gregg Jefferies. Occasionally I’d move, and find the pin I bought of him at a game in 1990. Or I’d look through my old writing, and find a parody poem of Casey At The Bat I wrote with him beating the Mets in the NLCS in 1994. (It’s as dreadfully bad as it sounds.) But, aside from those fleeting moments, the man responsible for my uniform number was gone from my consciousness.
These days, my comedy career is going pretty well, and it’s led to some neat baseball-related perks. Next week, I throw out a first pitch for the first time, and I get to write this very column for a Mets blog I’ve been reading for 10 years. And, recently, David Cone followed me on Twitter. I sent him a thank you tweet, and when I got no response, I forgot about it. It was cool, sure – but perhaps he was just returning my follow and not actually paying attention.
But when Cone favorited something I wrote a few days ago, the 9-year-old in me came flooding back. Did one of my childhood heroes like something I wrote? I suddenly remembered watching Ron Darling roll over the Phillies for the clincher, the Mets winning their 100th game and Jay Howell getting ejected for using pine tar in the NLCS. I remembered five ace starting pitchers, two MVP candidates, and a dominant closer before we knew what dominant closers were. And I remembered Gregg Jefferies.
On a whim, I checked to see if Jefferies had a Twitter account. His son coincidentally helped him start one just days earlier, and Jefferies had just 62 followers. I followed him, and sent him a note. He wrote a nice one back, and I assumed that would be the end of our exchange.
I remember the moment my heart soared. It was June of 2014 and I was a few months shy of 35. I was sitting with a friend when my phone buzzed, and there it was right in front of me. “Gregg Jefferies has followed you.” Gregg Jefferies followed me – just 25 years after I started following him.
It seems strange to get excited that a 46-year-old high school baseball coach may or may not be reading 140 characters of my narcissism. But that is what being a fan means. It’s a series of moments – of strikeouts and clutch hits, of throwing errors and diving catches. Some moments break your heart, and some moments send it soaring. But those moments stick with you. Those moments are what you live for.
I wonder if he’ll like my poem.