Brooklyn to Citi Field a lifelong journey for this Mets prospect
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The reunion took place last Aug. 3, about a 20-minute drive from Jaylen Palmer’s home in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Palmer’s mother, Loren, made the short trek, carrying a bright yellow sign with lettering that read: “Welcome home Jaylen.” Palmer’s father, who had shared so many car rides with his son on a different route across the borough, was there as well. So were countless friends and others from Canarsie and beyond.
Some of them had lived their entire lives mere miles from Coney Island’s Maimonides Park. To see one of their own playing there on a nightly basis was overwhelming.
“You always wonder about the ballplayers when you see them on TV, their story,” Loren Palmer said. “But now, people actually know this kid. They’re like, ‘I know Jaylen. I’ve been to his house. I know his parents. I went to school with him. I know him.’”
Imagine, then, how the reunion will look if Palmer -- a 22nd-round Draft pick who has already ascended to become the Mets’ 14th-ranked prospect -- makes it to Citi Field in the coming years.
“I’m waiting for that day to happen,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a very exciting but also emotional day. All the hard work will have finally paid off.”
For Palmer, all the hard work began in Canarsie, a southeastern Brooklyn neighborhood where both of his parents were born and raised. As a child, Palmer spent much of his free time playing basketball or video games close to home. Most of the rest he spent outside Brooklyn limits as his parents -- dad was a sanitation employee, mom worked in customs at nearby JFK Airport -- ferried him to baseball games for his travel team.
Palmer’s father, June, was also a basketball lover who encouraged Jaylen to take hoops more seriously -- so much so that he kept a basketball in Jaylen’s room as a subtle form of encouragement. But Jaylen preferred a bat and glove. He kicked the basketball back into the hall enough times that June eventually relented. Baseball it was.
It helped that Jaylen had a knack for the game. His coach on the youth travel circuit was close friends with Steve Adams, the coach at Holy Cross High School in Flushing, Queens. The Palmers wanted Jaylen to attend a Catholic school, so it became the perfect match. Each morning at around 6:15 a.m., June and Jaylen would pile into their car and follow the Belt Parkway past JFK, then motor up the Cross Island Parkway along the eastern border of Queens. Jaylen Palmer remembers the roughly 20-mile commute as a quick one without much traffic.
“That’s because he was just asleep all the time,” June Palmer said, laughing.
Upon arriving at Holy Cross as a freshman, Jaylen Palmer was a rail-thin 5-foot-7. By his junior year, he had grown half a foot to make his professional prospects easier to see. Scouts from the Twins and the D-backs, among other clubs, began hanging around to watch the Knights’ speedy shortstop and closer.
“He would do things on the field that were just freakish -- plays that other guys weren’t getting to in the hole, throws they wouldn’t make,” Adams said.
On the day the Mets selected Palmer in the 22nd round of the 2018 MLB Draft, his mother -- who had decided on a whim not to stay late at work that afternoon -- heard the news and began screaming out of joy. She knew how much this meant. As a freshman, Palmer had penned a letter to himself for a class assignment, with instructions to open it at graduation. In it, he wrote that he wanted to play baseball professionally. He wrote the same thing in his yearbook. Having a chance to do so within a short drive of home was a bonus that none of the Palmers could have predicted.
“The New York kids can do it, too,” Loren Adams said. “Give them a chance, and they can do it.”
For Palmer to continue this dream, versatility will be crucial. Last year, he played five positions, including all three outfield spots. The scout who signed him, John Kosciak, envisioned Palmer as a center fielder back when he was still in high school. In the outfield, Palmer has been able to showcase his speed, which allowed him to steal 30 bases over 105 games last summer.
That included a 39-game stint at High-A Brooklyn, where the 21-year-old Palmer lived at home in Canarsie, enjoying all his old comforts. (Mom cooks a mean chicken cutlet; New Park Pizza in Howard Beach is always good for a slice.) His parents attended every game, often entertaining well-wishers from their place in the stands. On Aug. 31 against the Wilmington Blue Rocks, Palmer homered in his first at-bat. Passing his father’s seat, Palmer yelled to June that he was going to hit another one.
“And then I actually did!” the younger Palmer said. “That was pretty dope.”
Such performances made fans of countless Brooklynites who reveled in Palmer’s story. The list of homegrown Mets born within the five boroughs is infinitesimal, highlighted by Ed Kranepool and Lee Mazzilli. Others, such as John Franco, returned to the city only later in their careers. A precious few, such as Mike Baxter, attended high school in Queens. Fewer still came to the Mets holding any real connection to Flushing. (The most intimate relationship belonged to Ed Glynn, who grew up in the neighborhood, went to school in nearby Fresh Meadows, worked as a hot dog vendor at Shea Stadium and, eventually, played two seasons for the Mets.)
Palmer is the rare New York prospect who checks multiple boxes: born and raised in Brooklyn, developed in Queens. So imagine the reception he will receive if he makes his Major League debut back in Flushing, close to home, within driving distance of anyone who wants to take the Belt Parkway to the Cross Island with a homemade sign or three.
“I’ll put up a billboard,” June Palmer said, laughing.
“Oh,” replied his wife, Loren. “Now, you’re going too far.”