PORT ST. LUCIE — Upon introducing much of the Mets’ free-agent class, general manager Billy Eppler said he searched for players who “make their teammates more significant than they are” and contribute to a healthy clubhouse culture.
Eduardo Escobar apparently takes the mission seriously, and the clubhouse extends past the one located in major league parks.
Escobar, in his first season with the Mets on a two-year, $20 million pact, volunteered to speak to the Mets’ minor league camp Sunday in a scene that manager Buck Showalter understood to be “some kind of special, borderline tear-jerker .”
Escobar had to fight and scrap to get here — a little kid without much, including a father in the picture, emerged from Venezuela to become a longtime major league player and All-Star — and shared the “commitment and dedication, the love that I ‘ve had for this game,’ born out of a work ethic that was passed from his mother to him to, he hopes, the Mets’ prospects.
The flexible infielder, whom the Mets will mostly use at third base, said he did not have a “normal childhood” growing up in La Pica, a rough neighborhood in the state of Aragua, where he started working to help provide for his family at about 7 years old.
“There would be nights when I would go to bed without eating,” Escobar told The Post on Monday through interpreter Alan Suriel.
He would do any odd jobs to help his mother raise money to buy groceries, from sweeping floors to cutting branches.
“Not the type of upbringing that my kids have now,” Escobar added.
He never stopped working, though he began playing, too.
First around the neighborhood in the streets with children around town, before he was recruited for organized ball. Scouts found him when he was 14, and by 16 he had inked a small but meaningful contract with a $25,000 signing bonus with the White Sox, escaping poverty but not losing his hunger. He debuted in the majors in 2011 and made the All-Star team in 2021.
Escobar, who hit .253 with 28 home runs last season split between the Diamondbacks and Brewers, wanted the minor leaguers to know “everything I’ve done to stay in the big leagues for 10-plus years now.”
The message landed.
“He said to learn from everybody. He said: Just respect a lot of the wise people around you,” said third-base prospect Mark Vientos, who said he was picking Escobar’s brain while he was in major league camp. “I learn from Buck, [third-base coach Joey] Cora, all these guys.”
According to Vientos, Escobar credits his longevity to the daily workouts and commitment to improving, even as a 33-year-old.
“That’s why he’s still in the game now, and that’s why he’s an All-Star in the game,” said Vientos, who was part of an intrasquad game on an off-day on the Mets’ Grapefruit League calendar. “He’s a good guy to look up to — especially at third base.”
Showalter said Escobar volunteered for the speech and was not produced by the Mets, but there are all sorts of reasons the team would welcome this development.
After a season in which team president Sandy Alderson acknowledged the clubhouse dynamic “changed” as the campaign wore on — and one in which several players flashed thumbs-down gestures in a stated effort to boo fans right back — there was an emphasis on bringing in players with established big league reputations.
Escobar was the Diamondbacks’ “Heart and Hustle” award winner in 2019, given to the player who best exemplifies the spirit and values of the game. In 2017, he was a finalist for the MLBPA’s Marvin Miller Man of the Year award, after starting a foundation to provide food, medical supplies and baseball equipment for Venezuela.
Also added to the Mets’ clubhouse this offseason were seven-year vet Mark Canha, 10-year major leaguer Starling Marte and Max Scherzer, about to begin on his 15th season.
“I was looking at the service-time sheet that we have — a lot of people that have walked the walk and have a good voice of reality,” Showalter said. “That’s really in a nutshell what leadership’s about, is defining reality.”
Escobar hopes his reality and background will help the present and future of the Mets.