Mets' Hurlin' Hawaiian takes pride in roots

February 22nd, 2021

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Shortly after learned of his trade to the Mets, he received a call from an acquaintance back home in Hawaii.

“You didn’t get No. 50?” the voice on the other line said.

“I’m a rookie here,” Yamamoto replied. “I can’t really do much about that. I’ve got to earn it before I do anything.”

Uniform No. 50 has been significant for several players from Hawaii as a way of honoring their home state -- the 50th in the nation. Sid Fernandez wore No. 50 throughout his career, including his entire decade with the Mets. Benny Agbayani donned it for all but his initial rookie season. Yamamoto wore it during his two years in Miami, but when he arrived in New York, that number was already taken by reliever Miguel Castro. So Yamamoto opted for No. 45 instead.

Perhaps in future seasons, that could change for a pitcher proud of his heritage. Growing up, Yamamoto played Little League with one of Fernandez’s nephews, so he used to collect signed cards of the 1986 World Series champion. He called both Fernandez and Agbayani legends in Hawaii, which has only birthed 46 big league ballplayers -- and many of those before it became a state.

Even so, Yamamoto wasn’t going to make a fuss about No. 50. He understands the unspoken rules of veterans taking precedence on uniform numbers, just as he gets the unique challenges the Mets’ equipment manager faces this spring. The Mets have invited 72 players to big league Spring Training. Add in manager Luis Rojas plus 13 coaches, and that number swells to 86. The Mets also have five retired numbers (counting Jackie Robinson), and five others on ice, making a grand total of 91 numbers either in use or unavailable.

Unusual integers will be a common sight not just on the back fields this spring, but the main stadium as well. Another new Met, Taijuan Walker, has an affinity for that sort of thing, having worn Nos. 99, 0 and 00 at various points over the past four seasons. With the Mets, Walker publicly debated both 00 and 99, knowing Marcus Stroman owned 0. Eventually, he decided on No. 99, which eccentric reliever Turk Wendell famously wore for five seasons in New York.

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COVID scare in the past

For the first time since last August, catcher has been able to spend time with his big league teammates in the clubhouse and the field. After Nido contracted COVID-19 last August, he had to quarantine in Miami, where the Mets had been playing. Nido wasn’t cleared to resume baseball activities until mid-September, but he never made it back from the Mets’ alternate site in Brooklyn.

Now, Nido is once again among his teammates, and once again in playing shape.

“Thankfully, everything is good,” he said. “I was able to go into the offseason healthy and prepare for this year like I usually do. So thankfully I’m healthy, and I don’t have any lingering effects or anything like that. I’m ready to go.”

Nido called his coronavirus issue particularly unfortunate given the timing. Not only were the Mets coming off a sweep of the Marlins, but Nido was finally starting to establish himself as a bona fide MLB catcher, even threatening to take playing time away from starter Wilson Ramos. In 26 plate appearances before the shutdown, Nido hit .292 with two home runs and a .929 OPS.

If everyone is healthy, regular starts won’t be an option for Nido this season, since the Mets signed James McCann to a four-year deal. But Nido is the strongest candidate to break camp as McCann’s backup, potentially giving the Mets two strong defensive catchers with offensive upside.

“I know I was a very small sample, but it was something to build off for this offseason,” Nido said of his 2020 performance. “Obviously, it was what we wanted to see, the progress I wanted to see. Going forward, it definitely helps the confidence that ultimately, the plan is going to translate.”

Roster matters

To make room on the 40-man roster for Kevin Pillar, the Mets on Sunday designated fellow outfielder Guillermo Heredia for assignment. The team now has seven days to trade Heredia, release him, or place him on outright waivers.

Heredia appeared in only seven games after the Mets claimed him off waivers from the Pirates last August. The defensive-minded center fielder began 2021 with an outside chance to make the Mets’ roster, but the additions of Pillar and Albert Almora subsequently made him expendable.