Tony Tarasco played only one season for the Mets, but holds a special bond with Shea Stadium.
A Washington Heights native who is best remembered for the ball he couldn’t catch because 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier had better elevation, Tarasco — the Mets’ new outfield/baserunning coach — returned from a two-year stint in Japan to play in Queens in 2002.
The previous year Tarasco’s father, Jiacinto, who once worked as a Yankee Stadium peanut vendor, died. Among his wishes was to have his ashes spread over baseball fields on which his son had played.
“With the Mets, it was my first time returning to the big leagues and I saved his ashes just so I could say, ‘Hey pop I made it back, ’ ” Tarasco said. “I sprinkled his ashes out there at Shea to keep his spirit alive.”
Tarasco’s playing career, which also included stints with the Braves, Expos, Orioles, Reds and Yankees, ended after that one season with the Mets. He then began a major league coaching career that took him to the Nationals and for the last five seasons the Padres.
The Mets, under new team president Sandy Alderson, identified defense and baserunning as areas of significant concern after last season. Tarasco, whose contract wasn’t renewed by the Padres, initially interviewed for a minor league position with the Mets. Two days later he was asked to interview for a major league coaching job with the team. He was hired in late December.
The 50-year-old Tarasco, who will also coach first base, is now overseeing Dominic Smith and Brandon Nimmo, among others, as the Mets seek defensive improvement in the outfield.
Smith, a first baseman who relocated to the outfield, has impressed Tarasco with his enthusiasm.
“Amazin’ But True,” The Post’s Mets podcast, returns Monday with weekly episodes throughout March.
“[Smith] wants to do it,” Tarasco said. “And when you have got somebody who wants to do it and is determined and is claiming their right to be a good outfielder, you are going to get it done. You are going to see this kid grow throughout the year.”
Already this spring, Smith has come to appreciate Tarasco’s high energy and ability to keep players engaged, holding them accountable.
“We work extremely hard out there and he has a ton of really cool drills that keep everything fun, keep it light, but you are actually working every day,” Smith said. “The energy that he brings just fires you up. It makes you want to run through a wall.”
Nimmo has identified his positioning in center field — he says he played too shallow last season — as an area for improvement.
“Now we put together his plan, him and I, and we go forward and start working on those things,” Tarasco said. “Not only his position and understanding his positioning, but how to read and understand the information that is pouring in for him and how to use it to his best, but also working the mechanics on making him a better center fielder, a better leader. All things once again that he is claiming and choosing to be better at.”
As an outfielder, Tarasco said his golden rule was, “I don’t let raindrops hit the ground.” But it’s the catch he didn’t make for which he is most remembered.
That came in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS with the Orioles, when Tarasco ran toward the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium to catch Derek Jeter’s flyball. But a young fan, Maier, reached over the fence with his glove and caught the ball before Tarasco could get it. In an era before replay review, umpire Richie Garcia’s home-run call stood. Jeter’s homer propelled the Yankees’ victory, and the Orioles lost the series in five games.
“Me and Jeter, we cross paths here and there and we still go back and forth with it sometimes,” Tarasco said. “I’ve actually had an opportunity to run into [Maier] here and there. What a wonderful person, he was a 12-year-old kid, what do you expect a 12-year-old kid to do, not try to catch the ball? You go to a game, you bring your glove, you want to bring home a ball. That’s a home run for Derek Jeter? I might have flipped over the fence to try for it.”