Sunday, February 12, 2012
#557) JAY PAYTON
Jay Payton was selected by the New York Mets in the first round (29th overall pick) of the 1994 free agent draft. He was teammates with Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek while attending Georgia Tech. The right-handed hitting outfielder got off to a successful start in the Mets minor league system. Payton captured batting titles in both the New York Penn League in 1994 and the Eastern League in 1995. Unfortunately Jay had ruptured a ligament in his right elbow late in that second season. Doctors performed a ligament reconstruction procedure that was only the first of four surgeries eventually needed over the next two years. "I'm definitely frustrated and disappointed," Payton said of the injury in 1997. "They say everything happens for a reason, but this doesn't make sense. Maybe 10 years from now it will."
Payton worked through painful rehabilitations to continue his path to New York. His efforts seemed to be rewarded in May of 1998. The Mets found themselves shorthanded with ten players on the disabled list. Jay was summoned to Shea Stadium as a replacement. "I almost wanted to cry," Payton explained of the promotion. "It's been so long. I've waited so long because of the injuries. I'm just happy. Really happy." Disappointment was to return when the young outfielder was returned to Triple-A Norfolk without an appearance.
Jay did make his eventual major league debut as a late season call-up on September 1, 1998. He was inserted as the left fielder facing the Padres in San Diego. Payton delivered base hits in each of his first two at-bats during the 9-8 road loss. He actually hit well during the short audition in New York. Jay posted a .318 batting average in his 22 at-bats to close the year.
He returned to Norfolk, but earned a second September promotion in 1999. Payton's breakout season came the next year when he made the Mets Opening Day roster. Jay established himself as the club's starting center fielder during the 2000 National League Championship campaign. He helped the Mets win the Wild Card entry with 17 home runs, 62 RBIs, and a .291 batting average. His success continued with home runs in both the NLCS and World Series. Jay's blast in Game Two of the Subway Series came off New York Yankees closer, Mariano Rivera.
"I don't get all the hoopla," Payton said after the NL Championship banner was raised at Shea Stadium the next April. "I kind of watched it go up for a half-second, then got my arm loose and got ready for the game. Come Wednesday, nobody's going to care about that banner except us and our fans. We've got to get back to business as usual and try to get us another banner up there next year—maybe one a little better."
Jay struggled through a tough season in 2001 that was complicated with a strained right hamstring. He was traded the next year along with Mark Corey, and Robert Stratton to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for John Thomson and Mark Little on July 31, 2002.
After retiring from baseball in 2011, Payton has enjoyed time with his son in Oklahoma. He serves as a professional hitting instructor at Hitting Skilz in Edmond.
Jay Payton signed his card in the set for my friend, Lou before his appearance at the Baseball Assistance Team dinner in New York City on January 28, 2012.