Familiar opponents now playing for Mets
Hairston, Harris have robbed New York of runs in the past
PORT ST. LUCIE -- The baseball left the bat of David Wright with aspirations of coast-to-coast travel. The itinerary called for the ball to leave PETCO Park in the sixth inning and fly all the way to New York, carrying word of a grand slam and a Mets victory against the Padres. Even the Padres' center fielder thought so. "Off the bat," Scott Hairston says, "I said, 'Uh oh.'" But then he reconsidered and realized the trajectory lacked altitude. He began to run.
"The ball doesn't carry in PETCO," Hairston told himself as he accelerated. "So I told myself, 'Get back to the wall.'"
Hairston intercepted the Mets' hope. The baseball never did the damage he had feared and Wright had expected. A brilliant catch in left-center field turned all that energy into a grand sacrifice fly that produced the only evidence of Mets offense in a second straight 2-1 defeat that Friday night, June 6, 2008. A third one came the following evening.
Ten months earlier, Wright had hit one over and beyond the wall at Shea Stadium, putting the Mets one run behind the Braves in the ninth inning. Despite a change of pitcher, the ballpark still was abuzz when Carlos Delgado put a mighty swing on a pitch from Oscar Villarreal. The score was all but tied when all eyes caught the image of the left fielder, a little guy who seemingly could move vertically and horizontally at once. The score was about 7-6.8 when Willie Harris reached the left-center-field wall and leaped, extending his gloved left hand above the top of the wall. Delgado denied, Mets defeated, Harris delighted. It was Aug. 9, 2007.
An unassigned locker in the Mets' clubhouse here separates two stalls, one with a nameplate that says "Harris," the other nameplate says "Hairston." The locker that once was assigned to Delgado is two down from Harris'. Some 30 feet to the west of Hairston's stall is Wright's. It seems the Mets have chosen to join the men they couldn't beat.
Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins were not part of the Mets' corporate structure in 2007 and '08, when Harris and Hairston interfered with the club's best intentions. Then, it was up to Omar Minaya and Willie Randolph to curse the fates and the guys with the gloves. Now, the Alderson-Ricciardi-DePodesta-Collins coalition has added the two outfielders in this mix, match and, maybe, Mets camp. Here, the two are trying to catch -- on.
Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran and Angel Pagan comprise the projected Mets outfield in some still-not-determined sequence. But as was reconfirmed last summer, three outfielders are insufficient. The H&H Boys hope to serve as understudies.
Hairston, 30, is the son of Jerry Hairston, the former White Sox outfielder. He bats right-handed. He has played in seven big league seasons, never accumulating more than 464 plate appearances. Harris is 32, with service in each of the last 10 seasons. A left-handed bat, he never has exceeded 471 plate appearances in a season and has averaged 368 for the last four seasons. Hairston is among the six outfielders on the 40-man roster, Harris is not.
Hairston is a shade more of an all-round player; Harris is more the Endy Chavez win-you-a-game-with-a-catch-squeeze-or-steal type. Room exists on the big league roster for both. And each is the kind of player whose value increases as the team's winning percentage increases. A poor team has less use for late-inning defense because, more often than not, it is trailing and in need of offense. Each has a relatively modest offensive resume.
And both can run down a fly ball. Harris had been a repeat defender in the Mets' eyes. He has made at least five catches to deny them significant run production in the last four seasons, in 2007 with the Braves and the interim three with the Nationals. He robbed Ryan Church two years ago; last year, he hurt Rod Barajas. "And I got one in Spring Training last year, too," he said.
"I don't know why, I just make catches against the Mets. I've never tried to, they just hit more balls that were hard to get to. I know I have a lot against them. It made me think I was supposed to be here. Now, I am."
Hairston recalls his play against Wright. "It wasn't an all-out dive, but I kind of tumbled after I made it. I know it was a good catch. I made a better one against Bengie [Molina] early in 2009. It was in the gap, and I caught it over the wall. But I remember the Mets were having trouble scoring in that series, so it had hurt.
"I remember I got to third [base] later in the game, and Wright said, 'Ya know, you're not supposed to be catching those."
Wright has been around long enough to total the number of runs the Mets have lost to their new would-be teammates.
"I thought I had a chance for three RBIs when Scott got me," he said. "But Willie Harris has killed us -- what? -- seven or eight times?"
"Yeah, probably seven or eight," Harris says. "I love making plays. I don't care what position, I just love making plays."
He has brought seven gloves to camp -- he left two home. He has started games at all three outfield positions, at second, third and shortstop in the big leagues. His preference is for the outfield -- to a degree.
"I just want to be where I can make plays and help my pitcher have to deal with fewer hitters," Harris said.
Harris may have the Lenny Dykstra gene, the one that prompts him to dive after any airborne baseball rather indiscriminately. Dykstra did it as a teenager -- he'd dive into the fence after he and friends broke into Anaheim Stadium. Harris went diving for a ball Sunday in camp. "Mookie Wilson stopped me," he said. "He said, 'We don't dive in Spring Training.'
"I said, 'OK ... but I just don't like to see the ball drop.'"
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.