Jankowski bringing back memories of Mets’ 1969 World Series hero Ron Swoboda

 In Sports

Travis Jankowski took a page out of Ron Swoboda’s book this spring.

And more than likely, it went a long way toward helping the 2009 Lancaster Catholic grad earn a spot on the New York Mets’ Opening Day roster.

Swoboda, as many baseball-passionate elders will recall, came up with a 1969 World Series-defining play in Game Four for the Amazin’ Mets when he ranged into the right-center field gap and made a diving catch to rob Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson of an extra-base hit.

Now fast-forward to this past March 20 in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Top of the fourth inning. Cardinals’ infielder Paul DeJong wiggling his bat in the batter’s box. An inside-out swing delivers a sinking line drive into open spaces, and Jankowski did his best Swoboda impersonation to steal a hit.

But if the 30-year-old Jankowski inspired memories of the Mets’ former outfielder, he might have needed a visit to YouTube to learn exactly who Swoboda was.

“I think it was (Mets’ radio announcer) Howie (Rose) who asked me, ‘Hey, do you know who Ron Swoboda is?,’” Jankowski recalled laughing. “I said, ‘Howie, am I going to get in trouble if I say no, because I don’t know who that is.’ He goes, ‘Just look up the catch,’ and I’ll tell you what, I looked it up when I got back in the clubhouse … Very similar.”

It was just the second Grapefruit League game of the spring for the Mets, but it was the perfect opportunity for Jankowski to show off his skills.

“It was a good way to kinda put that impression out there,” he said in the Mets’ dugout prior to their game against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on April 13.

Which is just what Jankowski was looking to do. In mid-March, following the conclusion of Major League Baseball’s lockout, he signed a minor league contract with the Mets which included an invitation to spring training.

Having spent the 2021 season with the Phillies, New York obviously saw him when the two National League East rivals played in divisional games. All the same, though, this was a new team and Jankowski once again had to prove himself, moving on to his fourth big-league team since being drafted in 2012 by the San Diego Padres.

As last summer was playing out, as he was on his way to batting .252 with a .364 on-base percentage while playing exceptional defense, Jankowski was hoping to re-up with the Phils, the hometown team he grew up rooting for. The Ryan Howard-Jimmy Rollins-Chase Utley era was and is near and dear to his heart.

Alas, however, the Phils had other plans and Jankowski was granted free agency in November.

“Growing up, cheering for your hometown team and then getting to play for them was an awesome experience,” he said. “But in this game, it’s going to fill you with a whole bunch of shocks and surprises, so it’s one of those things that, the Phillies added some different outfielders, a different type feel. They thought that’s what was best for them and the Mets went a different route and went with me. I can’t complain. I get to play major league baseball. For me, it doesn’t matter what city I’m in (or) what jersey I’m wearing. It’s just all about going out and playing hard and playing for my teammates and the city I’m in.”

In addition to the Mets, there were a few other teams interested in him. But Jankowski and his agent talked, discussed what would be the best fit and opted to go to the Mets. By the way, Citi Field just happens to be only 47 miles from Stony Brook University, where Jankowski starred while playing for the Seawolves.

It was there that he got a taste of the New York mentality.

“I picked that up when I went to Stony Brook – that New York toughness, that leave everything out on the field, do everything you can to win and have that New York tough-guy mentality,” Jankowski said. “To be able to play and understand the make-up of a New Yorker is definitely going to help me here.”

Before he knew that Citi Field would be his home and not the Triple-A Syracuse Mets’ NBT Bank Stadium, though, Jankowski had work to do. He had impressions to make and he needed to win over the Mets’ brass.

With his 1,156 plate appearances and the service time that he has under his belt, teams know what Jankowski brings to the table. Going from being a starter with the Padres in 2016 to now more of a bench player, he admits that it’s a constant battle to prove himself. Yet, as he’s aged, Jankowski has gained self-confidence and an awareness of his identity.

“I’ve figured out I’m just going to play my game and do what I do, and if no teams wants what I bring, then it is what it is and it’s a heck of a career,” he said. “But for me, it’s just identifying who I am and staying with my strengths and what I do.”

As it turns out, those strengths weren’t lost on the Mets’ decision-makers. In the team’s second-to-last spring training game against the Astros, Jankowski learned that he was going north with Max Scherzer, Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Co. on the Mets’ Opening Day roster.

“(Manager) Buck (Showalter) told me in the fifth inning,” he recalled. “Buck came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Trav, how is the wife doing?,’ because he knew that my wife and family were down there. I said, ‘She’s a little stressed out. She’s flying home today, she’s got three kids, it’s her first time flying and we don’t know where I’m going to be.’ And he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Go in the clubhouse right now and call her and say, ‘Don’t worry, you made the team.’”

Through the Mets’ first nine games, Jankowski was batting .500 (5-for-10), including a 3-for-4 day against the Diamondbacks in a 10-3 win in their home opener on April 15. He expects his role to be that of a fourth outfielder, including doing some pinch-running and defensive replacement duties early in the season.

During New York’s swings through Washington D.C. and then Philadelphia to begin the season, he was lockering between infielder Luis Guillorme and outfielder Mark Canha – two of what Jankowski calls “a great group of guys.”

“The clubhouse is awesome – very talented obviously, but what people don’t see is the character of the guys in that clubhouse,” he said. “Honestly, there’s not one guy in there I don’t talk with. Pete Alonso is really easy to talk to – he’s awesome. Mark’s awesome. (Starling) Marte is awesome. Robby Cano is one of the best. James McCann. You name it.”

If you get the impression that Jankowski loves playing with the Mets, you’re right on target. He also loves the fact that he can be a teammate with three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and not have to bat off of him.

“There’s not a bigger blessing,” Jankowski smiled. “Thank goodness I don’t have to face him for at least this year because I got a few at-bats off him and not much success. It’s awesome to pick his brain from a pitcher’s side of things to understand yourself a little bit more, like, ‘Hey Max, what do you see from me? How would you attack me? How have you attacked me? Where are my holes at?’ He’s a baseball IQ guy. He’s a wizard. He’s not just out there beating you with his stuff. He has a game plan for each and every hitter in the lineup.”

Maybe while he’s in the Big Apple, Jankowski will also get an opportunity to pick the brain of Swoboda about that catch in the 1969 World Series.


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