A Wanderer Settles in at Shea

Damion Easley looked eagerly at the center table in the Mets clubhouse at Shea Stadium, where Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and Willie Randolph were huddled in front of a laptop computer shortly before game time on May 29, studying the night’s opposing pitcher, the rookie phenom Tim Lincecum.

“That’s where I’m headed next,” he said.

Maybe it’s Easley’s unrelenting search for self-improvement. Or maybe all he needed was a change of scenery.

But the fact that the affable 37-year-old middle infielder has settled comfortably and gainfully into a first-place Mets team is another surprising bend in a career path that has deviated significantly from the normal curve of success and failure.

New York signed Easley, a native of the Bronx, to a one-year, $800,000 contract to back up both Jose Valentin at second base and Jose Reyes at shortstop. Though the seemingly inexhaustible Reyes seldom comes out of the line-up, Valentin suffered a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee on April 28, relegating him to the disabled list and thrusting Easley into the starting spotlight.

Easley has not missed a beat, hitting .265 with seven home runs through Tuesday’s game, solidifying a position for which the Mets had few viable alternatives, and cementing his own position as a vital part of a winning team.

Even the Mets couldn’t have known precisely what they were getting in Easley, a five-foot-eleven baseball enigma who has at various points in his career played the role of non-prospect made good, light-hitting defensive replacement, franchise cornerstone and high-priced disappointment.

He was picked up by the California Angels in the 30th round of the 1989 draft—the 767th player chosen that year. He showed good speed but little power in his four minor league seasons before being called up in 1992.

Early on in his Major League career, Easley provided valuable versatility in the infield, but was decidedly undistinguished at the plate, hitting .239 over five seasons with the Angels, including marks of .215, .216, and .156 in last three years.

“I had to make major physical and mental adjustments when I got to the big leagues,” Easley said in an interview before Tuesday night’s game against the Giants. “The pitchers in the major leagues all have scouting reports on you. They force you to adjust by honing in on your weaknesses. For me, it was finding the ability to pull the ball. Coming up, I was more of an opposite-field hitter. But I was able to figure out how to pull the inside pitch.”

In July of 1996, the Angels traded Easley to Detroit for the forgettable relief pitcher Greg Gohr.

Not for the last time, a move to a new environment had a profound effect on his career. In the hitter-friendly confines of Tiger Stadium, Easley hit .343 over the season’s final two months of 1996. In 1997, he became a full-blown revelation, hitting 22 home runs as the Tigers’ everyday second baseman. The next year, he became an All-Star, hitting 27 home runs and driving in 100 runs.

The Tigers, an unusually young team at the time, decided to invest heavily in Easley, signing him to a five-year, $30 million contract after the 1998 season.

He never lived up to it.

In 2000, when the Tigers moved to a new venue, Comerica Park, Easley’s offensive numbers slipped to .259 with 14 home runs in 2000, then to .250 with 11 home runs in 2001, then .225 with 8 home runs in 2002. Each year, he hit worse at home than he did on the road.

The team had enough. Easley was benched, losing his job to the lightly-regarded Damian Jackson and Ramon Santiago.

Easley contends now that the stadium, rather than the contract, was what got inside his head as his production decreased. But the Tigers’ decision to cut him before the 2003 season at age 33, even with a then-record $14 million plus still owed to Easley, did not leave him bitter.

A Wanderer Settles in at Shea