Athletes are creatures of habit.
Everything in their lives has to be compartmentalized to infinitesimal detail. How and when they sleep, eat, train and recreate is scheduled. It is a mindset straight out of the military or Modern Parent and there is no option for flexibility, at least not away from the fields of play.
There is no change when they get to work. Every minute of their day is planned and there must always be strict adherence to the schedule. Jobs are scarce and the money too great to question the schedule. The only escape is the locker room.
Locker rooms are the athletes' homes away from their homes. The lockers at which they sit and dress is an odd juxtaposition of miniature walk-in closet, lounge and personal office. It is where they dress, catch up on gossip, hold question-and-answer sessions with media members and
prepare for that day's work.
The Mets clubhouse is not terribly different from others in sports. Walk around and you see shirts and pants hanging in lockers, cleats neatly arranged one next to the other. Caps on the wood shelving to the left of computer password protected safes. There is not much separating one locker from another, other than the nameplates above the stalls.
And that is why the small yellow sticker at one locker jumps out at you. The round, yellow sticker with a black number 21 in the middle is affixed to the edge of the shelf. Around the perimeter are the words Retire21.org, a grassroots organization stumping for Roberto Clemente's No. 21 to be retired throughout Major League Baseball. The man whose locker it is becomes excited when he's asked about the adhesive.
"I never saw him play but my father did. I've seen the highlights; I've seen what he accomplished in baseball, and outside the lines, too. He was a great human being. He died young," said Angel Pagan, his eyes alight, hours before his Mets beat the Padres 2-1 in 11 innings at Citi Field Tuesday night. Pagan went 2-for-5 with a triple, a stolen base and a celebratory pie to the face of Ike Davis, who hit the game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th. "He had 3,000 hits and did a lot of things for people in need. I'm a very big fan of that. I think he's the best player from Puerto Rico ever. So it's my job and it's my honor to try to see if they can retire No. 21. I'm just going to keep my lucky sticker there and see if it does anything."
It remains to be seen if those who believe that themselves Protectors of the Game -- be it through ancestry, hubris, the Peter Principle or the monumental dumb luck of going from used car salesman to Commissioner in one lifetime -- will acquiesce to the wish of Pagan and others and retire Clemente's No. 21.
What is not in question has been Pagan's development from everyday player to key component has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the Mets' 31-27 campaign. He is hitting .291 with 32 runs scored, four home runs, and 25 RBI in 55 games this season and will almost certainly set new career highs in every major statistical category. Not bad, especially when the organizational plan in spring training was for him to split time in cente rfield with Gary Matthews Jr., who was designated for assignment before Friday night's 4-3 win over the Marlins.
"I feel healthy. That's the most important thing for me. Second of all, I've done a pretty good of replacing Carlos (Beltran). I hope I've done a pretty good job," Pagan said. "Right now what I'm looking for is to stay healthy and keep contributing to the team as much as I can until
Carlos gets back. When he gets back, I just got to adjust to whatever role the team has for me."
Ah. Beltran. The pink elephant in the room. Currently rehabbing in Port St. Lucie, he is expected to join the team at some point this season. Beltran's return will provide Jerry Manuel the flexibility to create a centerfield and right field platoon with the three-time Gold Glove-winning
center fielder, Pagan and Jeff Francoeur. The manager has already announced as much.
Inarguably, having three players for two positions is the proverbial good problem for a manager. But what about the player? How does one react knowing in the back of his mind that eventually his playing time will diminish through no fault of his own?
"I don't (want) to say that it will affect me because I will keep working hard and try to do my best. It doesn't matter what the role is; playing every other day or whatever. I still have a job to do and see what happens, and just try to adjust from there," Pagan vowed.
A change in job description should not negativelyaffect the native of Dorado, Puerto Rico, who began his career as a reserve withthe Cubs in 2006 and 2007. He played in 148 of 324 games in the two seasons,spending much of his time being taught the game's minutiae by John Mabry, amongothers.
"Sometimeswhen you're young, you don't understand the game that well. Just having a veteran like him that has been around, knows how to pinch hit and has been around, you want to learn from those guys," Pagan said.
Eventually the time comes for lessons learned from a teacher to be implemented. For Pagan that came last season in which he hit .306 with 32 RBI and scored 54 runs while playing in a career-high 88 games. The numbers were great. The experience gained by starting almost every day following the All-Star break was invaluable.
"This is my second year healthy. Now I'm showing what I can do and what I'm capable of. So far it's going good," Pagan said. "I have a nice plan and I'm feeling pretty good about myself."
His confidence shows. It is bright as the yellow sticker on his locker.
Athletes are creatures of habit.