by Brian Kluepfel
Happy Birthday, Wilmer Flores
Do you remember where you were on your 22nd birthday? Wilmer Flores always will.
After being drafted by the Mets at the tender age of 16, and moving slowly up the minor-league ladder, an injury to All-Star third baseman David Wright provided Flores an opportunity in what was becoming a lost season for New York’s NLers, anyway.
So on August 6, 2013, 22 years after making his human debut in Valencia, Venezuela, Wilmer made his Major League debut at the hot corner in New Shea Stadium. And he took an oh-fer. So it was a bit of a mixed birthday celebration for la familia Flores. And just to get things correct, Wilmer isn’t one of these played-with—baseballs-made-of-rags kids rescued from the evil clutches of poverty by baseball—just a middle-class Venezuelan kid who showed some aptitude for the game and whose mom loved him enough to drive him to games and practices all the time.
The following evening, August 7, I myself am seated at incoming-LaGuardia airplane level in the upper deck of New Shea and Wilmer is again in the lineup for the Metropolitans. We are indeed in the cheapest seats possible, but can make out that Wilmer is wearing uniform #4, in replacement of Wright’s #5. In another turnabout, the National League’s outstanding Venezuelan player Carlos Gonzalez (also #5), the Colorado outfielder who makes the game look easy, is also out (with a thumb problem) . The smallest things cause such big problems, and “Cargo” can’t grip the bat correctly. For us fans of criollo baseballers, however, burgeoning righty Jhoulys (think “Julius”) Chacín, out of Maracaibo, is on the mound for the Rockies. (Just for some perspective here— Chacín is in his fourth full big-league season and will likely finish with more wins than losses for the first time; he’s going to make $1.65 million in salary this year. Practice that pitching, kids.)
For one inning Chacín matches zeros with Mets ace Matt Harvey, and then in the second it’s milestone time. Batting second in the frame, Flores raps a single into centerfield for his first big league hit: the ball is dutifully collected for the trophy case back in Valencia and several of the Met fans, aware of the significance, give young Wilmer a nice round of applause. Moments later he scores his first run. Then, in the eighth, he puts the game out of reach with a bases-clearing double that plates three. You walk someone ahead of Wilmer to load the bases? Not on my watch, hombre!
A few days later, Flores has really acquitted himself well, with 8 RBI in five games. And a few dandy plays at third base too, surprisingly good for someone who’s played most of the season at second base in AAA Las Vegas.
After 11 games, Wilmer has 11 RBI. As manager Terry Collins said, “We know he can hit. We just have to find a place for him on the field.” Then, reality: after 20 games, he’s still on 11 RBI, and the major-league pitchers are on to the Valencia kid. He’s twisted his ankle and missed a few games; he’s also played at second. The first week of September, Wilmer is alternating at a couple of infield positions with a few other prospects.
Like the great Yogi Berra once said, he’s future’s all ahead of him. We Met fans, in a season where we lost Venezuelan pitching great Johan Santana, hope we have a nice long-term position player in Wilmer Flores. Perhaps a worthy heir to countryman Edgardo Alfonso, a true Mets legend, in the infield.
No pressure kid. And Happy Birthday (feliz cumpleaños!)