If at First . . .
He came here over the winter as a willing free agent, but Mets first baseman Todd Zeile is well aware that New York isn't always an enticing place for pro athletes to try to make a living. "It's much more the rule than the exception that guys don't want to play here," says the 34-year-old veteran, who came to Flushing to fill the sizable offensive and defensive hole left by John Olerud. "You see all the passion of the fans here in New York, and some players mistake it for some sort of belligerence or being not fair, but I don't think that's the case at all. The instant I decided to sign with the Mets, I said the difference here is you're absolutely held accountable. The intensity in New York challenges you to play at a better level, because you simply can't slide by in this city without your best effort." That intensity seems to be working, as Zeile has quietly emerged as one of the most dependable Metsand on both sides of the ball, at that.
Most everyone around the team through this undeniably exciting, tense season will tell you how impressed they've been with Zeile's steadiness and consistency, both as a player and a teammate. On offense, where his projected year-end statistics (45 doubles, 25 home runs, 95 RBIs, and a near-.300 average) rank higher than his 10-year career averages, he's been everything the Mets had counted onand more, according to hitting coach Tom Robson. "Todd's been a delight," says Robson. "It's not just that he's a really good hitter. In the dugout, he's more than that. Playing in both leagues over the years, he's seen a lot of these pitchers. He knows what they throw and he studies a lot, and he passes it on to his teammates. He may seem quiet, but he's a leader-type guy. Everyone was so worried about it, but Todd walked into a difficult situationnew team, new positionand he's done it. That's the bottom line."
Prior to this season, Zeile spent most of his well-traveled career (remarkably, the Mets are the eighth team he's played for in the last six years) as a third baseman. Position shifts aren't new to him, though. The Southern California native came up through the Cardinals system as a catcher in the late 1980s, but was shifted to third in 1991 by then St. Louis manager Joe Torre, who made the same conversion during his playing days. Now moved from third to first, Zeile has shown steady improvement since day one of spring training, when former Mets captain and defensive ace Keith Hernandez was brought in to tutor him. "Since he was already an infielder, I knew he could handle ground balls," says Hernandez. "So all we really had to work on was his footwork around the base and making throws from the other side of the field on double plays and bunts. His progress was really rapid. After the first week it was night and day. Every game you're a little more comfortable, so it's not surprising he's gotten better as the season's gone on. It's a responsible position on the field, but Todd's a professional."
A professional who readily admits that "a lot of people thought I was nuts" for choosing to sign with the Mets and step inside this city's sports pressure cooker rather than staying in an already established comfort zone with the Texas Rangers, who'd acquired him in a mid-1998 trade. The Rangers were eager to keep him. "For all intents and purposes, the offers from both teams were the same," says Zeile. "But I've always wanted to play in New York, for a variety of reasons."
One of the main reasons, says Zeile, was his excitement playing in Yankee Stadium as a stretch-run member of the 1996 Baltimore Orioles, who lost the American League Championship Series to the Yankees on the Bronx Bombers' way to their World Series crown that year. "That was a very memorable experience for me," says Zeile. "I really got to see the intensity and focus in this city when it comes to sports. Joe Torre and his brother, the kid catching the ball over the fence. I got a chance to play at that heightened playoff level, and I had a very good series against the Yankees [he hit .364 in the five-game playoffs]. I wasn't intimidated by it at all. So when I thought about signing with the Mets, I thought, they've got a legitimate shot and that's not something to be afraid ofit's something to embrace."
Zeile's been living in Manhattan's Chelsea section with his wife, the former Julianne McNamara (a gold-medal gymnast in the 1984 L.A. Olympics), and their children, six-year-old Garrett and two-year-old Hannah. He's already become a neighborhood-savvy New Yorker, hitting John's Pizza on Bleecker Street, by his own account, at least two dozen times. "Even though it's such a cosmopolitan city, there's a great blue-collar mentality towards sports here," he says. "I've played in Chicago with the Cubs and you could lose 15 out of 20 games and the fans are still supporting you. New Yorkers are die-hard fans, and even when they boo you it's because they want to win so bad and they want to shout it from the rooftops." He's also enjoyed discovering for himself the endless rivalry between Yankees and Mets fans. "I get just about as much of a kick out of someone yelling, 'Hey, Zeile, you're a bum, the Mets stink,' as I do someone cheering me."
Let's leave the final word to Zeile's manager, Bobby Valentine, who earlier this season questioned GM Steve Phillips for giving Zeile a three-year, $18 million contract when the Mets might have tried to fill Olerud's slot from within the organization (and for far less money). "It's unfair to compare any player other than to his own past accomplishments," says Valentine now, when it's noted that Zeile and Olerud have accumulated strikingly similar stats so far this season. "But Todd stands on his own. Some guys who come to play here are kids, regardless of their age, and some are men. Todd's a man." He's not likely to get higher praise than thatin any town, let alone New York.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.