Rey Ordoñez had just returned to the Mets locker room after indoor batting practice during last weekend’s soggy sweep of the Cubs at Shea Stadium when one of the team’s young clubhouse assistants decided to take advantage of recent world events and get in what would certainly rank as the dis of the day, if not the whole year: “Now that they got Elián, you’re next!” he yelled at the Havana-born shortstop. Ordoñez, who defected to the U.S. in 1993, responded by chasing the kid down the corridor, lumber in hand, and taking a few good-natured mock swats at his kneecaps. Watching the scene unfold, one Mets veteran wryly observed that it was the first time in his career that anyone could recall seeing Ordoñez swing at anything below the belt.
“First ball, fastball, high-ball hitters.” That’s the stereotype Billy Martin was fond of using to describe the batting habits of Latin players. But in 27-year-old Ordoñez’s case, it’s the words of former Mets broadcaster Tim McCarver that still stick like pine tar. “Rey Ordoñez is a high-ball swinger,” McCarver used to say. “Not a high-ball hitter—just a high-ball swinger.” And now that it’s several weeks into the season, and Mets bats seem to be coming around, it’d be nice if there were noticeable signs of positive progress regarding Ordoñez’s hitting style. Even after the Mets tattooed the pathetic Cubs pitching staff for 40 hits and 30 runs in three games, Ordoñez’s 4-for-8 performance in the series had only succeeded in raising his season average to .188—a number even the legendary Mario Mendoza would be embarrassed to carry to the plate.
What makes Ordoñez’s case so fascinating is that, while baseball history has been studded with good field, no-hit middle infielders, it’s hard to think of another player who’s ever demonstrated such contrasting, utterly opposite approaches in going from one side of their game to the other. What makes Ordoñez so brilliant in the field isn’t really his athletic ability: His arm is good, but it’s no rifle, and he’s not an acrobat like Ozzie Smith. Rather, it’s his instincts. From his patented slide-and-plant maneuver on balls hit into the hole, to using his feet to block second base on steal attempts and pickoff plays, to that utterly uncanny, eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head ability to take cutoff throws from the outfield and, in one swiveling motion, relay the ball to nip runners at home, one continually marvels at the kind of innate smarts he brings to his position.
Once that fielder’s mitt comes off and the batting gloves go on, though, it is truly a whole different ball game. Granted, Ordoñez’s basic stats from last year were surprisingly respectable—a .258 average and a career-high 60 runs batted in, which probably makes him feel he has no need to do anything differently. A peek inside the numbers, though, reveals that not only has he continued his four-year-long career trend to be among the league leaders in fewest pitches seen per at bat (just a tad over three; now you know why the fact that he doesn’t strike out much is so misleading), but also this alarming factoid: In 520 official at bats in 1999, Ordoñez hit the first pitch a whopping 96 times. (By contrast, Edgardo Alfonozo, in 628 at bats, hit the first pitch just 48 times.) No wonder Roger Cedeño went almost a month last season without stealing a base when batting ahead of him.
Both manager Bobby Valentine and hitting coach Tom Robson keep trying to get Ordoñez to think down—swing more at pitches that are down, try to hit the ball down, not in the air—but their efforts continue to be an exercise in futility, as Ordoñez seems more unwilling than unable to change. “We’ve been going over the same things, over and over now, for the last few years with him,” Valentine said last week. “What can I say? His offense’ll be what it’ll be.” Fair enough, one supposes. After all, the last Mets team to win a World Championship did so with a powerful lineup that featured an eighth-place hitting shortstop who hit all of .218. Rafael Santana—now there was a first ball, fastball, high-ball hitter for the ages.
Met-cetera: Now that the Wharton School controversy and the Don Baylor controversy have both died down (nothing like a nice long winning streak to stop the muckraking), the Mets Quote of the Week comes not from Bobby Valentine but rather from outfielder Jay “Raging Bull” Payton, who finally seems to understand what playing major league baseball in the Big Apple is all about. Finding himself surrounded by the media after it was revealed that he’d missed a game because of a trip to the New York Hospital emergency room, Payton noted that “I get more press for passing a kidney stone than getting two hits!”