Tuesday, May 31, 2005

By The Numbers

Memorial Day. It's supposedly a great baseball holiday. Yet on Memorial Day 2005, there was no baseball in New York for either the Yankees or the Mets. That meant that fans of both teams were bored, and you know what that means...


Today's argument with my Yankee fan "friend" revolved around numbers. His issue was with the lack of uniform numbers retired by the Mets in their 43+ season history, and the fact that the Mets have a problem with acknowledging their past. Retiring uniform numbers is tricky. Obviously, the Mets only have one hall of fame player wear their cap in Cooperstown, (Seaver) so if you are going to go simply by that criteria, then there's no need to save room on the outfield wall. And while you do want to acknowledge your history, you don't want to make a dopey move along the lines of, say, the White Sox retiring Harold Baines' number 3 after trading him to Texas because the move turned out to be unpopular...only to have Baines play 12 more seasons and come back to the White Sox TWICE.

So here is my $0.02 about who should make the wall, and who should fall just short...

Jerry Koosman's 36: Being a dominant part of the '69 champs and lasting 12 seasons with the Mets work for him. Not being a hall of famer and a Met record of only 140-137 work against him. But if you throw out his last two seasons pitching for terrible teams his Met record becomes 129-102. And he also had seasons like 1973, where he had a 2.84 ERA but only a 14-15 record. And his record in the playoffs: 4-0. To me, 36 belongs.

Tug McGraw's 45: A sentimental choice, as his rallying cry of "Ya Gotta Believe" was the symbol of an amazin' run to the 1973 World Series. Spent 9 seasons with the Mets for 86 saves, along with 10 for the Phillies for 94 saves. Was as much a symbol of the 1980 Phillies champs as he was for the '73 team, and of course he was an important cog in 1969. A shame that he wasn't a Met for his entire career. If that were the case, 45 would have been retired a long time ago. As it is, 45 should be under at least some consideration, and certainly should be mentioned here on this list. Unfortunately, the fact that only two of his Met seasons resulted in over 20 saves keep him off the wall. And if the Mets didn't retire his number after his untimely death last year, they never will.

Gary Carter's 8: His hall of fame status and his being an integral part of the '86 champs are pros. Only 5 seasons with the Mets hurt him, and the last three Met seasons were awful. "Kid" to me personified what was right with the Mets, and to many, what was wrong with the Mets (excessive curtain calls). There was no more important player on that championship team than Carter with his clutch hitting and his handling of the pitching staff. But his lack of production from 1987-1989 was a big reason why those Mets teams didn't win more than one. If it were up to me, 8 would be on the wall. But just 2 productive seasons is going to keep 8 in circulation, and I can understand that.

Keith Hernandez's 17: Was also an integral part of the 86 team. Spent 6 and 1/2 seasons in blue and orange so that's a bit better than Carter but not by much. From '83 to '87 Mex was one of the best clutch hitters in baseball, the best fielding first baseman in baseball (yes Yankee fans, a bit better than Mattingly), and a big part of the clubhouse with his take no garbage attitude. In '88 and '89 he battled injuries and was let go with Carter at the end of the 1989 season. No hall of fame status hurts him a bit, but I think you could probably make a slightly better case for Keith's 17 than for Gary's 8. I think two things ultimately keep Hernandez off the wall. First is that if the Mets don't retire 8, they would not retire 17. The two numbers should go hand in hand at Shea. And second, to a much lesser degree, is the fact that he works for the club as an announcer and he has butted heads in the past with Piazza over his infamous "they quit" comments a few seasons back. The fact that Hernandez caved from his comments after some pressure from his employers and apologized knocked him down a peg in my eyes, because I agreed with his original analysis. I think it helps keep 17 in the clubhouse.

Darryl Strawberry's 18: The way Straw's career was going, 18 should have been a slam dunk. His name and his persona gave him a recognition factor in the 80's that rivaled Reggie Jackson's noteriety in the late 70's. He spent 8 seasons in Queens and put up big numbers. He also had issues on the field and off. He was on track for Cooperstown until he left the Mets after the 1990 season, where his career and his life fell apart. To me, even though he blew his shot at Cooperstown, 18 would have been a cinch to be retired except for one thing...his public obsession with playing for the Dodgers with Eric Davis which started during the 1988 playoffs. To Darryl's credit, he recently admitted in a television interview that leaving New York was the biggest mistake of his professional career. And I'm glad he's turned his life around. But he can't undo the past, and that's why Marlon Anderson wears number 18.

Dwight Gooden's 16: Similar to Strawberry in that he should have made the hall. Spent 11 seasons at Shea, and from '84-'86, was the brightest star in New York baseball, bar none. But Gooden also had substance abuse problems...first in 1987 when he missed the first two months while rehabbing at Betty Ford clinic (and may have cost the Mets the division that season as they started slow and wound up finishing 3 games behind St. Louis), and twice more in 1994, which ultimately led to his suspension from the major leagues in 1995. Number 16 being raised for Gooden, in a way, sets a bad example. A number retirement would be a mighty high honor for someone who, while dealing with his own demons and meaning no ill will towards anyone, let down his organization and his teammates. You could say it would also be a bad example in Strawberry's case, but Gooden's drug abuse kept him off the field for the Mets, which never happened in Strawberry's Met tenure.

Mookie Wilson's 1: This is interesting. Although Wilson's Met career wasn't statistically spectacular, he was the embodiment of class and played the game the right way. His at bat against Bob Stanley was the most important at bat in franchise history, and if you tell me that he got lucky because of Buckner's colossal blunder, I will respond by telling you that Mookie would have beat it out anyway. The lack of big-time statistics will keep number 1 around, but I have to tell you that if the Mets ever decide to retire Mookie's number, it would be one of the classiest moves in franchise history.

Mike Piazza's 31: Piazza is in his 8th season with the Mets, and is a lock for the hall of fame. Not only was he an intregal part of the 2000 N.L. champions, in many ways he WAS the team. Unfortunately, his lasting legacy in a Met uniform will be tied to Roger Clemens, but I can't think of a good reason why 31 won't make it's way to the Shea wall. Piazza has played more games for the Mets than with Los Angeles, and he should be wearing a Mets cap in Cooperstown...so to me this seems like the most obvious lock.

The Mets obviously take seriously the prospect of retiring a number. This is why there is a Mets hall of fame in the Diamond Club at Shea, so that all of these players can be honored without having wrangle with the decision to pack their number away. It's the way it should be. But do they take it too seriously? Should the Mets to a better job of honoring their past? They could always do better. And to me, Koosman's 36, along with Piazza's 31, belong on the shelf forever, and there should be at least some consideration for the rest. But ultimately, retiring a number should be sacred and extremely special...not the result of extreme sentimentality, wasted potential, an untimely death, or in the case of Baines, a stupid trade. If that were the case, Scott Kazmir's 57 would never be worn again.

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