Family Wiffle ball prepped Winker for hostile NYC fans

May 15th, 2022

NEW YORK --  is joining the ranks of Bryce Harper, Chase Utley and Chipper Jones among all-time Mets nemeses, perhaps climbing up to Public Enemy No. 1 among current players. And he continued to relish the role with his latest act on Saturday at Citi Field. 

Winker crushed a game-tying, three-run homer off Chasen Shreve in the top of the seventh inning, stopped to watch it sail 417 feet into the soggy night, then took his time to trot around the bases. After he crossed the plate and high-fived Eugenio Suárez, Winker turned and gave a long wave to Mets fans behind home plate before retreating into the dugout, where he continued to banter with them from the top step.

Though the blast didn’t lead to a win, as the Mariners bullpen couldn’t hold the tie, in an eventual 5-4 loss, it might’ve been the spark Winker needed to get going in what’s been a tough start with his new team.

"I'm going to be honest with you, I love them,” Winker said of Mets fans. “They are an amazing group of people. They are very passionate about their team and their city. And from a guy who, born in upstate New York, is a big fan of that football team up there [the NFL’s Buffalo Bills], I can understand the passion and I respect it. This thing we've got going on is special."

Winker again had a chance to spoil the party in the top of the ninth for the 37,140 on hand, who waited out a one-hour, eight-minute rain delay. And in a matchup with former Mariners closer Edwin Díaz, Winker nearly did. In a 2-2 count, Winker connected on a low-and-in slider that came off the bat at 99.8 mph -- from one knee -- and traveled 355 feet but yanked outside the right-field foul pole. Winker thought he got all of it, but the Mets wound up with the last laugh.

“I did, man, but obviously it went foul,” Winker said. “He's elite. He's a special pitcher, a special closer. We've had some battles against one another, as well, and he came out on top and they got to send me off with a wave. So, it’s kind of perfect how it works. You’ve got to love baseball. It's poetry. It's beautiful. And for that little game in May, that was perfect for their side. That’s probably exactly how they wanted to close it.”

Winker has been fired up all weekend about playing at Citi Field, and for good reason. He knew that he’d be walking into a raucous environment because this good-natured brouhaha began three years ago when Winker was a regular visitor with the Reds.

The first kerfuffle began on back-to-back nights in May 2019, the second of which he crushed a go-ahead homer -- off Díaz, strangely enough -- then made a game-ending catch before waving to Mets fans in left field. The crowd evened the score in the series finale, when Winker was ejected in the ninth inning of a 1-0 loss for arguing balls and strikes.

Then, in 2021, Winker traded an autographed ball with a personal message for a fan’s offensive poster targeted at him, in good faith citing how excited he was to have crowds welcomed back after pandemic restrictions eased. There have been other jabs in between, too.

If it seems odd that Winker has long been able to block out the commentary, especially when it’s personal, he channels his childhood and the heckling from his two older brothers.

“They would really say some personal things, my brothers, to get under my skin when I was a young buck,” Winker said. “Maybe they had a little inkling that something was coming down the road. I don't know. But there's nothing better than a good old-fashioned Wiffle ball game in the front yard of a Winker household. I've heard it all.”

Shreve nonetheless took exception to Winker’s lengthy home-run trot and barked at him as he rounded the bases.

“When I throw the pitch, turn around, watch the ball go out, go to get another ball and you’re still, like, in the batter’s box? That’s a little too much,” Shreve said. “And then waving to the fans? It’s a little overkill. But whatever. That’s the way he is. He got me. I’ll get him next time.”

But Winker wasn’t trying to show him up. It was just another chapter in a rivalry that is becoming must-watch.

“We had an idea it might get loud, and it’s OK,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It's all fine. That's what the game is about. Fans, and certainly this part of the country, they're going to get into it, and Jesse has been here before. He knows what to expect, and he handled it just fine.”

Winker entered the night with just one homer, a solo shot on May 5, and just five other extra-base hits, all doubles. Thanks to a disciplined approach, he’s put together a .326 on-base percentage, mostly via 20 walks, yet even after Saturday's deep fly, he’s slugging just .308. But perhaps it’s the kickstart he needed to get going in the right direction.