In the Mets clubhouse an hour before Saturday’s meaningless game against the Washington Nationals, Julio Franco was singing, general manager Omar Minaya was strutting, Shawn Green was lying down on the floor playing with his laptop.
Pedro Martinez, portrayed by the local media in recent days as brooding and cranky, was yelling in Spanish and acting out a B-movie shower scene playing on a suspended TV behind him. David Wright and Paul Lo Duca were in stitches.
More often than not, if the clubhouse is in a giddy mood like this, Cliff Floyd—the towering, emotive 33-year-old left-fielder who is one of the team’s undisputed clubhouse leaders—is at the center of it.
But on this morning, Floyd was uncharacteristically quiet.
The few things he had to say were the kind of remarks generally reserved for people in desperate need of a conversation-starter. “Starting to get chilly outside,” he said to Ricky Ledee, who sits next to him. “Shit, here it comes.”
After clinching a division title and the best record in the National League last week, the Mets are priming for their first October play in six years.
These are boom times for young regulars like David Wright and Jose Reyes, for whom this will be their first postseason, and for veterans like Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez, who will be looking to add to their record of past playoff glories.
But it’s a grim time for Floyd. He suffered a personal tragedy last month when his 21-year-old sister unexpectedly died of cancer. (He told the Daily News at the time that no one in the family saw it coming.)
He has struggled all season with injuries and an aging body. He was placed on the disabled list twice this year and will have off-season surgery that will shave off a section of bone near his Achilles tendon.
It has taken a heavy toll. After knocking 34 homers and nearly 100 R.B.I.’s last season, he now is having one of the worst stretches of his career—just in time for what is to be his first appearance as a starter in the postseason. He is hitting .242 for the year, and just .212 since the beginning of August, and has a scrappy much-improved j ourneyman named Endy Chavez nipping at his heels for a place in the starting lineup.
The question for Floyd and the Mets now turns on whether he can defy his corporeal slide and produce Kirk Gibson–like heroics this October, or whether he will quietly fade away.
“I’m going to be able to help the team as much as my body and my bat allow me to,” he told reporters after a recent start. He was shirtless, showing off shoulders about as broad as the Shea Stadium outfield. “Other than that, I’m just going to play.”
Floyd’s locker, which had three Louis Vuitton bags stashed inside, is situated at a pivotal point in the clubhouse, between the Mets’ white players and Spanish speakers. It is also next to a framed blown-up copy of Sports Illustrated with the headline “Welcome to Rip City,” with Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Paul Lo Duca, David Wright and Carlos Delgado on the cover. Floyd is not in the photo.
Being injured is nothing new to Floyd—he’s had only four 500 at-bat seasons in his 14-year career—but years of damage to his wrist, knees and ankle might finally be catching up with him. When he described his future, he sounded fatalistic.
“If I get a job next year, great,” he said. “If I don’t, I won’t have any feel-sorry-for-Cliff-type moments. No, don’t feel sorry, because I’m going to go home and relax and chill out. That’s how it’s going to be.”
The team seems to be doing its best to be supportive. Manager Willie Randolph struggled to find kind words recently when a reporter asked him to evaluate Floyd’s play.
“He’s swinging the bat O.K.,” Randolph said before Monday’s game against the Nationals. “I don’t really go by numbers and stats. He said he’s feeling well physically; he’s had a few good at-bats and moved pretty well defensively. That’s pretty good.”
“I give him a B—something like that. Is that good?” he said. “I don’t know.”
The one topic on which Randolph and every other Met gushed about Floyd is his role in the clubhouse, which almost seems to overshadow what he does on the field.
“Cliff has been such an influence on this team with how he shows up and keeps the team loose,” said Billy Wagner. “You know, I just love him.”
“He’s not only well respected, but also one of the favorites in this clubhouse,” said David Wright. “He had a great year for us last year, and even if his numbers aren’t where they were, he’s more than just a guy in order of this lineup—he’s a big part of the heart of this team. Fans don’t see that and numbers don’t show that, but it is very important.”
But is that important enough for Floyd to secure himself a starting spot for the playoffs?
The Mets have brought hobbled team leaders to the playoffs before, but with mixed results.
In 1988, for example, Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter hit .242 with 11 homers—literally identical stats to Floyd—but then managed only a .222 batting average in a losing effort in the National League Championship series against Kirk Gibson’s Dodgers.
Carter, by then, had fallen victim to what Mickey Mantle once described as the inevitable lot of the aging player: The ability to hit home runs gives way to warning-track power.
Floyd understands perfectly well what’s at stake. He played with the 1997 World Series Champion Florida Marlins but never got a chance to start a playoff game. He said starting this year will be “a dream.”
And he said he knows he still has a swing, especially after what he did last year, and what he did for a few strong weeks in the beginning of this one.
“I just want to do well,” he said. “I want to concentrate on working on my swing in the next week and a half. You never know what can happen. It’s not like I can’t play; it’s not like I can’t hit. I know I can hit. It’s a matter of getting a good pitch and hitting it hard.”
In a game on Monday night against the Washington Nationals, he got such a pitch.
With runners at first and third and two outs in the first inning, he was up at bat against a rookie making his second career start. With three balls and one strike, a prime hitter’s count, Floyd swung late on a meaty fastball and fouled it away.
With the count full, Floyd got his pitch: an 86-m.p.h. hanging slider down the middle of the plate.
He hit the pitch off heart of the bat and sent a soaring fly ball deep into the Queens night. He trotted slowly down the first-base line as Mets base runners David Wright and Carlos Beltran and eight Washington Nationals stared straight in the air. Shea exploded in anticipation.
Standing on the right-field warning track, Nationals right-fielder Ryan Church caught the ball for the last out of the inning.