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Where is #17?

By Jason Levy

In the left field corner of Shea Stadium, just above the fence, were four numbers all New York Mets fans hold dear to there heart. Thirty-seven for the original Mets manager and New York baseball icon Casey Stengel, who provided levity off the field during the Mets’ futility on it. Fourteen for Gil Hodges, the pride of the Brooklyn Dodgers who managed the Mets to the 1969 World Series title, forever cementing his legacy on the diamonds of New York (and should have sealed his Hall of Fame credentials, but that’s for another day). Forty-one for the greatest player in Mets history, Tom Seaver, key part of the ‘69 team, the 1973 NL Championship team, and regarded by many as the face of the franchise. Finally there is 42, for a player who never suited up for the Mets but made an everlasting impact on baseball and the country, Jackie Robinson, who’s number was attired across the sport in a Shea Stadium ceremony in 1997. So that’s four numbers, two of which were managers and one that was never a Met. Doesn’t that seem like too few? What other Mets numbers should join those four in their new spot in Citi Field?
The first question that needs to be asked is what qualifies a number for retirement? If it is just making the Hall of Fame is the qualifier, than Hodges should be taken down. So Hall of Fame status would certainly improve a player’s chances, but being left out of Cooperstown shouldn’t prevent the number from being immortalized. It should have more to do with said player’ impact on the organization, the city, and the fan base. Someone who was an integral part of a championship team, or who was the face of the franchise during a period of success should see their orange and blue number forever remembered by the Mets faithful. The player’s greatness doesn’t need to be justified to the rest of the league or sport, but to the organization and fan base itself. You also don’t want to retire so many numbers that the honor loses its meaning.
One of the greatest shames is that there is not one player from the 1986 Mets with a retired number. There were several great players on that team, too many to name individually as far as their impact on the season. The most compelling cases lie with four players; Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry. Strawberry and Gooden were the wunderkinds of the franchise. The power hitter and ace for the next decade-plus. At the time, to say they weren’t going to be Hall of Famers was heresy in Flushing. But off the field issues and missed potential kept their careers off kilter and kept them out of reach of Cooperstown, but both were able to hang on and be productive for a number of years later. Should 16 and/or 18 be retired? As great as Doc and Straw were, they were unable to keep up the level of play, but also didn’t stay Mets for much longer. Straw was gone in 1991, which was the last year Doc was above .500 for the Mets.
The case for Carter is a bit more compelling. He is the only HOF’er in the group. His arrival in 1985 was the final piece of the puzzle for the Mets. It was Carter’s hit in the bottom of the tenth with two outs and none on that kept the Mets alive to rally. But beyond that, the case for 8 falters. His numbers declined each season of his Mets tenure. He only hit above .260 in 1985. He only drove in 46 runs in 1988. His last season with the Mets, 1989, he only played in 50 games. Unfortunately, five seasons is not enough to retire a number.
That leaves number 17, Keith Hernandez. It was his acquisition in 1983 that set the Mets in motion for the rest of the decade. He was the face (and facial hair) of the Mets for all of his seven seasons in Queens. He won gold gloves playing first base, and was a consistent force in the lineup. Few players have meant as much to a franchise as Keith has to the Mets. His current Mets career as a broadcaster on SNY has only cemented his Mets legacy (plus his stint as Seinfeld immortalized him in the comedy realm). His legend across the sport may not be as grand, but in Flushing it’s hard to find anyone better. 17 should retired as the symbol of the 1986 Mets. He is the most deserving of the group.
After Keith, there is one more shoe-in for a Citi Field retirement ceremony. When the time comes, Mike Piazza’s 31 will certainly be retired. He should be a first ballot HOF’er (if he doesn’t get in during his first try, he absolutely will shortly after) and was the face of the franchise from the day he arrived in Queens, and was a fan favorite even after he left (have Mets fans ever cheered for a visiting player the way they did in 2006 when Piazza as a San Diego Padre, especially when he hit two homers) and was the best player on the playoff teams of 1999 and 2000. The Mets may wait until he is enshrined in Cooperstown to do so, but 31 will not be worn by another Met.
The list gets pretty thin after that, unfortunately. Edgardo Alfonzo, Al Leiter, Pedro Martinez and John Franco all made an impact as Mets, but not enough to be immortalized. It is to early to tell if any current Mets will stay long enough and play well enough to earn the honor, but there are several promising candidates. But just think Mets fans, how special would a Keith Hernandez day be in Citi Field? It could bring some brightness to a franchise that has finished in the dark the past three years.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I have been clamoring for the Mets to retire #17 since he retired. The Wilpon family seems to disavow a lot of the Met history. They honor Tim Teufel and Howard Johnson, two minor factors in 1986, but neglect Keith, Rafael Santana, Ray Knight, Mookie, and others. The Wilpon's have selective memories when considering the great team of 1986.