Thursday, September 22, 2005

Mike Piazza on the Wall...And Who Else?

Is there any doubt that the Mets will retire this jersey?

There's been a lot of talk about Mike Piazza leaving the Mets after his contract expires at the end of the season, and that the team is preparing some kind of special day to honor him.

And while they might not do it this year, I think the team will retire Mike's No. 31, probably after he is enshrined in Cooperstown.

This got me thinking, usually a dangerous thing. The Mets have only retired three numbers -- the ultimate honor a team can bestow. It's four numbers if you count Jackie Robinson's 42, which was honored by every team.

Casey is the only Met to wear 37.

No. 37 was set aside after first manager Casey Stengel broke his hip and retired. Then No. 14 was retired after manager Gil Hodges died unexpectedly in 1972. Both were probably knee-jerk reactions, but I can support them. Especially for Hodges, who not only led the Mets to their first championship but was a beloved player for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The only Mets player honored is Tom Seaver, and I'm proud to say I was at Shea with my family when No. 41 was unveiled on the leftfield wall.

But that's it for players. I think there should be more. But a lot of care should go into this. You don't want to be like the knuckleheads across town, retiring numbers left and right to inflate their own importance.
No. 14 was retired to honor Gil Hodges, an original Met who later managed the 1969 World Champs.

Basically, retired numbers fall into a handful of categories.

You have your no-brainer, stud Hall-of-Famers, players like Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench and Ted Williams.

You have your mega-studs who finish their career with a different team but in their original city, a club limited to Hank Aaron at the moment.

There are the beloved players who are not Hall-of-Famers, like Harold Baines, who actually came back to the White Sox after his number was retired.

There are managers who won championships.

I was there with my "41 Forever" banner when Seaver's No. 41 was retired in 1988.

Then you have the oddballs, like the Angels retiring No. 26 to honor owner Gene Autry, the so-called 26th player on the team. The worst was the Marlins retiring No. 5 for Carl Barger, a team executive who died before the team played a game. He never played, so No. 5 was for Joe DiMaggio, Barger's favorite player. Thank you, H. Wayne Huizenga for proving once again why you should never have been allowed to own a baseball team.

So using those guidelines, let us look at the Mets who are eligible in number order.

No. 1: Richie Ashburn
Ashburn was an original Met and even the team's first All-Star. But he played just one year and doesn't fall into the Aaron category. Mookie Wilson also wore the number. And while he's beloved, I don't quite think he's wall-worthy. But a worthy selection for the Mets Hall of Fame.
Decision: No

No. 4: Duke Snider
The Duke of Flatbush was on a nostalgia tour when he played for the Mets on his way to Cooperstown, one of the many former Dodgers and Giants added to the team in the early years. Duke hit 14 homers, a fine farewell to the New Yorkers who loved him, but not enough to retire his number.
Decision: No

No. 5: Davey Johnson

The skipper of the 1986 Champions, the best Mets team ever. Davey falls out of favor with ownership for some reason, but the guy's done nothing but win everywhere he's been. He needs to be honored in some way. They've since given his number to David Wright, among others, and based on what we've seen of Wright so far, it might never be issued again.
Decision: No

Here's a collection of Mets heroes: Kranepool, Ron Swoboda, Cleon Jones, Al Jackson and Jim McAndrew.
No. 7: Ed Kranepool
Check this out. Steady Eddie hasn't played since the late 1970s, and he's still the Mets' all-time leader in games, at-bats, hits, doubles, singles and even sac flies. He's third in RBI. Playing 18 seasons with the same team will do that, and you're not going to play 18 years with the same team unless you are something special. Clearly he falls into the Harold Baines category. But the number has been in circulation since -- a mistake in my eyes -- and now is worn by Jose Reyes, a worthy heir. I wouldn't have blinked if the Mets retired No. 7 when Eddie retired, but the time has probably passed.
Decision: No

No. 8: Gary Carter
The Kid's a newly minted Hall-of-Famer, was a co-captain and a stud player on the 1986 World Champs. This one's a no-brainer. Perhaps next year, the 20th anniversary, will be the time to hoist No. 8 to the wall. Maybe Yogi Berra, who managed the 1973 pennant-winners and also wore 8, can make the presentation.
Decision: On the wall!

No. 10: Rusty Staub
You laugh, but Staub's number was retired by the Expos -- and they no longer exist!. Le Grande Orange was a key player on the Mets' 1973 pennant-winner, and was a valuable contributor in the team's rise back to respectability in the 1980s. He should never have been traded. I owe Staub. I took my wife to a game in the late 1980s, and as we were buying tickets Rusty walked through the box office. I said "Hey, there's Rusty Staub!" My wife said, "So? Who's Rusty Staub?" Sadly, she said this loud enough that Rusty heard her. Ouch!
Decision: No

No. 12: Roberto Alomar
Robbie's a first-ballot Hall-0f-Famer, but his short tenure with the Mets was anything but glorious. The guy just fell apart. And Alomar played for so many teams, I can't decide which team's cap should be on his plaque, much less which team could retire his number.
Decision: No

Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden in happier days.

No. 16: Doc Gooden
And this is where honoring the 1986 team gets tough. Gooden is probably the greatest tragedy in Mets history. The guy nearly posted Hall of Fame numbers even with the boozing and drugging. And worse, the Yankee-ing. Gooden's still a mess, as his recent arrest shows. But he's still behind only Seaver on the team's all-time wins list. I just can't see the Mets giving him the ultimate honor.
Decision: No

No. 17: Keith Hernandez
Hernandez is probably more important to the success of the 1986 team than Carter, and there are some writers who still vote for him for the Hall. If only Mex had not fallen apart so fast. But he's still active with the team, even appearing in a classic Seinfeld episode. I have no problem retiring No. 17 for Hernandez. I kind of owe Hernandez, too. My grandmother accidently poked him in the stomach with a broom handle in her shopping cart at Publix in Jupiter, Fla.
Decision: On the wall!

No 18: Darryl Strawberry
Another player who would be in Cooperstown today if not for the drugs and booze and Yankee-ing. I get so caught up in how good Strawberry could have been that I forget how good he actually was. Straw is still the team's all-time leader in home runs, RBI, runs and even walks. How do you overlook that? Like Gooden, Strawberry's post-baseball world has been a mess, and that's hard to overlook, too. But can you honor Carter and Hernandez and not Strawberry? I tend to be inclusive with such things.
Decision: On the wall!

No. 21: Warren Spahn
Spahnnie is the best lefty ever. But he was horrible with the Mets, and didn't even last the season. His number has been retired by the Braves, and rightfully so.
Decision: No

No. 24: Willie Mays and Rickey Henderson
My gut says that when the greatest all-around player in baseball history wears your uniform, you should retire it. The Mets have, kind of. The only time it's been worn since Mays hung it up after the 1973 World Series was a brief stint by scrubby Kelvin Torve -- a mistake by someone -- and Rickey Henderson, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. He's Willie Bleeping Mays! His baseball farewell -- "I say to myself, 'Willie, say goodbye to America'" still gives me goosebumps! Greg Prince of the fantastic Faith and Fear in Flushing site did an eloquent job explaining why Mays' number should be retired not just on the Mets, but throughout the Mets' minor league system. and you can read it here.

Decision: On the wall!

No. 30: Nolan Ryan

Ryan's number has already been retired by the Angels and Rangers. He came up with the Mets and got his World Series ring in 1969, but hated living in New York. That's going to disqualify him right there. Plus I'm still bitter that Ryan made baseball's All-Century Team and Seaver didn't. I can't do anything about that, so I must get my revenge in petty ways. Like this.

Decision: No!

No: 33: Eddie Murray

Another first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. I'm forever grateful that Eddie played for the Mets because I was able to go buy Mets jerseys and put my name on the back. Eddie didn't do poorly in his two years at Shea. But he didn't do enough to warrant retiring his number, either.

Decision: No

No 31: Mike Piazza...and John Franco?

I have to tinker with the number order here, because this is where things get tricky. Mikey's going in the Hall as a Met. It's a no-brainer that his number goes on the wall. Now, John Franco, a team captain who was basically Mr. Met in the 1990s and beyond, wore 31 and gave it up for Piazza when he arrived. Franco's departure this year was ugly, but his subsequent release by the Astros shows Omar knew what he was doing. Franco's a New Yorker through and through, and we can assume whatever hurt feelings exist will ease over time. Do you retire No. 31 for both Piazza and Franco, or

No:45: John Franco, Tug McGraw and Pedro Martinez

Do you throw No. 45 up there to salute McGraw, too, and make it kind of a tribute to relievers? The only complication is that Pedro's wearing the number, hopefully for at least four years, and he's a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, too. You can't retire it while Pedro's still got it on his back. These are the problems you run into when you wait too long to do the right thing.

Decision: Throw 31 on the wall for both Piazza and Franco!

There you go! I realize I just took up about half the outfield wall with numbers, but it's still fewer than the Skanks -- and every one more worthy than Phil Rizzuto!

In other words...

Those darn Braves will likely retire Bobby Cox's number after they read Will's column that shows Cox ranks up there with baseball's very best of all time. Read it here.


Metstradamus said...

Very nice job.

I wrote a similar, though not as thorough, blog on the exact same thing during the early days of "Metstradamus". I had a couple of different names in there:

G-Fafif said...

It's interesting to watch perceptions change as the years go by. I remember a conversation when I was in junior high (not a Flashback year) with several Mets fans in which we decided that it was certain that 3, 7 and 36 would all be retired someday along with no-brainer 41. I blinked and Wayne Twitchell was wearing Jerry Koosman's number.

If the Mets had taken 7 out of circulation for Ed Kranepool in 1980, the 1,751 in attendance would've applauded heartily and nodded in agreement. Do it today, and there'd be a lot of eyerolling. Yet it's the old argument about HOF voting. Why should some 19th century player be inducted now when his qualifications haven't changed a bit in a hundred years? Therefore, if the Krane and Kooz and Buddy were worthy then, why not now? Is it perspective? Or do we just forget? (Not the you and me fan-we, but the official we.)

As you mention in your excellent analysis (I love the way you break down your subjects, incidentally), Casey and Gil were numbered out in the context of their departures. If the Mets, for some reason, had opted to wait a few years with Stengel, they might not have done it at all. "That clown? He lost a million games!" I think that's what works against Willie. If the Mets had retired No. 24 when he was still a coach (obviously letting him wear it while in the employ of the team), few would've blinked. That's how big Willie's coming to the Mets was and that's how strong the hold his years with the New York Giants were on the public imagination.

Try selling it now and you (and I) are mostly ridiculed. That's why I mentioned in my Gotham article that next year, the diamond (!) anniversary of his birth, would be the perfect opportunity to do something. I doubt 24 is going up on the wall anytime soon but he is Willie Mays. In '99, the Mets had nights for Hank Aaron and Ted Williams, two great players who never played one day for a New York National League team (plus they gave Sammy Sosa a trophy). Mays played parts of eight seasons for NY (N). At the very least, bring him in when the Giants come in, have Seaver give him a plaque and do it at game time, not an hour before with the Hicksville Kiwanis. Maybe Bonds will attract a crowd so Willie won't be surrounded by glaringly empty orange seats the way almost every honoree seems to be.

The 31-45 business is murky. Of course Piazza should be so honored. But do it for Franco, too? If it's done for Franco, how can it not be done for Keith, Gary, Darryl, et al? And if you're doing Johnny, how can you not do Tug who was everything in terms of team-identification that Johnny wished he was? And what is Pedro supposed to wear in the meantime?

I've generally appreciated the Mets' hesitation to retire numbers like they're batting practice balls. But I think they have blown it with their de Rouletish stinginess where these slights are concerned.

Again, thank you for such a thoughtful examination on a topic that can always use it.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Stengel is an interesting case. I read that he actually didn't do much actual managing with the Mets -- or with the Yankees toward the end, either, with Frank Crosetti doing much of the in-game stuff. So he was kind of a mascot like Mr. Met. But he was clearly the face of the franchise early on and they continued to make a big deal over him on Oldtimer's Day through the end. And considering those early teams, I'm not sure any manager could have made much of a difference anyway!

John said...

Hey Dave, Tell Will I (a Brave Fan) said "Touche!" for his story on Bobby Cox. I, too, think that he should be honored.