I have to admit: Keith Hernandez wasn’t the only one who was shocked at the news that the New York Mets would be retiring his number 17 this coming July. Not that his contributions don’t merit it, but the timing of it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The Mets have always had high standards when it came to taking uniform numbers out of circulation – maybe too high – but as someone who is a die hard Mets fan, I think a lot of people need to be honest with themselves: for a franchise that will celebrate its 60th anniversary this season, there is a great dearth of great moments and players in the team’s history to truly celebrate.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing or nobody, but there is a reason we, as a fanbase, continually default to Tom Seaver and the 1969 club, to the juggernaut of 1986 and to Mike Piazza and those black jerseys. At best, the Mets have been consistently inconsistent; at worst, they’ve been the #LOLMets that the internet knows and loves for their chronic ineptitude both on and off the field.
Keith Hernandez deserves to have his number retired. His on-field contributions as a player and leader for a team that won a championship and, after arriving via an in-season trade in 1983, was the linchpin of team that reeled off five consecutive 90+ win seasons, a stretch of winning baseball that has yet to be matched in franchise history, before leaving as a free-agent after the 1989 season and finishing his career in Cleveland.
By the time Keith joined the Mets, he was already an established star. Not the typical power-hitting first baseman, but a player who was renown for always coming up big in clutch situations and had been a multi-time All Star, a five-time winner of the Gold Glove, a batting champion, co-winner of the 1979 National League MVP award and, perhaps most importantly, a World Series champion.
Keith didn’t make his name with the Mets, but he expanded upon his legacy by adding another six Gold Gloves and the 1986 World Series title to his resume while compiling a 129 OPS+ and 26.6 bWAR during his time in Queens. The paper stats are great, but what everyone talks about is the leadership he brought to the team. If you watched the four-part ESPN documentary “Once Upon A Time In Queens” his teammates talk of him as if he was Serpentor of GI Joe fame always ready to lead them into great battle as his troops earnestly followed his example.
Yes, Keith Hernandez did enough over his time with the Mets to warrant having his number retired, but that doesn’t mean the dam should rupture and Steve Cohen should start handing out retired numbers as if they’re raisins to kids on Halloween. Celebrating the history of the franchise is great and needed and something that can span generations of fandom as tales parents tell their kids while sitting in the stands to build the next generation of supporters, but let’s not be willy-nilly here.
The Mets have had many great players who have passed through, but that doesn’t necessarily make them great Mets. Warren Spahn is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. A Hall of Famer. Not a great Met. Willie Mays may very well be the greatest player in the history of the game and played a role on a National League championship team…but not a great Met.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we – as a fanbase – definitely do suffer from “little brother complex” when pit against the vast and voluminous history of the Yankees. Whether it’s Old Timer’s Day, constantly having to put up with them on Sunday Night Baseball, or that insufferable meme of the bleacher jerk off waving the rings, we always want to fight back as if our team has a much richer history than it really does.
Over the past week, I’ve seen people looking to retire numbers for everyone from Ed Kranepool (no) to Edgardo Alfonzo (also no) to Gary Carter (a bit more difficult, but still no) and many others in between, but doing so completely bastardizes the meaning of the number retirement is. This doesn’t mean you can’t honor good players in other ways; the team does have its own Hall of Fame that properly recognizes a cornucopia of players from the past by acknowledging their contributions and having their accomplishments on display in the team’s museum in the Citi Field Rotunda to be appreciated by all. Ed Kranepool seems like a nice guy and he had the longest tenure of anyone to every put on the uniform and that can be acknowledged, but that doesn’t make him great. The team Hall of Fame is the perfect way to acknowledge a wider swath of players who were very good for the organization.
That being said, should Keith’s number be the last one to make its way to the facade over the upper deck until further notice? No! But, admittedly, the pickens are slim here. As I see it, there is only one player who is a no-brainer and a small handful who I would consider “on the bubble” who have compelling cases, but may take some convincing. Let’s get to it!
David Wright: The no-brainer. The (distant) number two on every Mets list that begins with “Seaver”. He may not end up in the Hall of Fame like we had hoped, but was as excellent of an everyday player as the team has ever produced. The dude was everything you could have wanted as a ballplayer and as someone to feel good about cheering for. No need for some wretched hot take here, give the man his flowers.
Now that we’ve got that one out of the way, let’s get into the weeds.
Dwight Gooden/Darryl Strawberry: Yes, it seems wildly unfair to once again pair these two together after they’ve dealt with a lifetime of it, but here we are because their cases are wildly similar. Two homegrown studs who were absolute stars upon their arrivals, but were hampered by personal issues that prevented them from being all-time greats and leading the franchise into a dynasty. I’m slightly too young to have vivid memories of them at the peak of their powers, but thanks to the power of the internet, have been able to watch many, many vintage games on YouTube and really get a feel for the electricity they each brought. Even watching decades after the fact you can’t help but feel just a tinge of sadness for what could have been which is probably the biggest mark against them. Whenever you speak of either Doc or Darryl you inevitably reach the “yeah, but” portion of the discussion.
It’s tough. There’s a genuine part of me that would love to see them both honored with what Keith called “the greatest honor that can be given by an organization,” but their candles did burn out fast leaving more questions unanswered than with definitive results. I can be swayed, but right now, I’d have to lean towards the “no” section of the argument.
John Franco: I expect many people will vehemently disagree with this one due to the fact that it just feels like Johnny never made it easy on those of us who were watching through a lot of bad seasons, but I think you need to remember that not everyone is Mariano Rivera. New York fans became so accustomed to seeing Rivera just mow through lineups and bats with ease for so long that we think every closer should be doing the same thing when that’s simply impossible. Mariano is Mariano for a reason, but John Franco was no slouch. He never had the insane save numbers because of how many dreadful Mets teams he played for, but he is/was as synonymous with “being a Met” as anyone. I admit that me thought process has a lot to do with his extended tenure with the team than overall greatness, but he was a very good pitcher for a very long time and if we were to bestow a sort of “lifetime achievement award” on anyone, Johnny should be that guy.
Gary Carter: Well, here we are. Kid seems to be the one with the most support from the fanbase outside of Wright and, to be honest, I just don’t see why. I get that he was “the missing piece” and gave the team that right-handed thump in the order as well as the studious mind behind the plate that helped navigate a young pithing staff, but for me, there’s just not enough high-level term as a Met. Gary Carter obviously had a wonderful career and is a Hall of Famer, but the overwhelming majority of his resume was as a Montreal Expo. That doesn’t negate the impact he had or the role that he played while a Met, but realistically, he only had two great seasons in Queens followed by three where his knees just refused to let him be that guy anymore despite how much he tried. I can appreciate what he did while with the team and think his space in the team’s Hall of Fame is rightfully earned, but I also think that is a sufficient and proper way to honor him.
Obviously, debates like this just open the floor to…more debates! So let’s hear what you’ve got. Agree, disagree, good or bad, get down in the comments and let’s hear it.