The Braves have announced that they’ll retire No. 10, recently worn by the player forever known in these parts as Larry Jones. The Mets might or might not have a ceremony of their own soon — they’ve been coy about the chances of putting Mike Piazza’s No. 31 on the wall when he’s inducted to Cooperstown, and there’s been a groundswell of support for retiring Gary Carter’s No. 8 since the Kid’s untimely death a year ago.
All this talk of retired numbers brought me back to a piece Greg and I penned for Amazin’ Avenue ‘s 2011 preview, in which we discussed the art and science of retired numbers and pondered whether any Mets were worthy of joining 37, 14, 41 and 42 at Citi Field. I thought it was worth looking back at that article and seeing if my thinking’s changed.
There are no set criteria for retiring numbers — teams are all over the place in terms of whom they honor and why. The Red Sox, for example, only retire numbers for Hall of Famers who spent at least a decade in Boston. Whatever their ground rules, some teams are good at retiring numbers — take the Braves’ pre-Larry list of Cox, Smoltz, Murphy, Spahn, Maddux, Niekro, Mathews, Aaron and Glavine, or the Orioles’ roster of Weaver, Robinson, Robinson, Ripken, Palmer and Murray. Other teams, well, need some help: The Astros’ list is Wynn, Cruz, Scott, Ryan, Wilson, Umbricht, Bagwell, Biggio and Dierker. The Marlins retired Joe DiMaggio’s number. The Padres’ retired Steve Garvey’s. And lets reserve special scorn for the Nationals, who unretired the digits their Expo forebears had honored.
Whatever your take on retiring numbers, the arguments generally revolve around four factors:
* X factor
The first three don’t need much in the way of definition. The latter, though unquantifiable, doesn’t either — we all understand that the name “Tug McGraw” quickens the pulse of Mets fans in a way that, say, “Howard Johnson” doesn’t.
Back in 2011, Greg and I looked at seven potentially wall-worthy Mets. Here they are, with credentials briefly summarized:
Dwight Gooden (No. 16): 157 Met wins and that amazing ’85 season; 11 years as a Met; one title; an icon turned star-crossed ex-con now thought of fondly but with sorrow and a certain wariness.
Keith Hernandez (No. 17): 939 hits as a Met; seven years in the fold; one title; X factor high as a player and enhanced by his becoming a broadcast-booth icon.
Howard Johnson (No. 20): 997 Met hits and three 30-30 campaigns; nine years as a Met; one title; for all that, not particularly remembered.
Jerry Koosman (No. 36): 140 wins plus four in the postseason; 12 years as a Met; one title; given his due but overshadowed, inevitably, by Tom Seaver.
Tug McGraw (No. 45): 85 saves; nine years as a Met; one title and one Dammit Yogi near-miss; “Ya Gotta Believe!”
Mike Piazza (No. 31): 30+ homers four times; eight years as a Met; no title; enormous X factor that his Hall of Fame induction will only enhance.
Darryl Strawberry (No. 18): only recently surrendered franchise hitting records to David Wright; eight years as a Met; one title; a polarizing figure while here, loathed for his exit but now embraced as a vaguely erratic crazy-uncle type.
Back then we didn’t consider the case of Gary Carter, which at first made me wonder if something had been accidentally deleted. Here’s the Kid:
Gary Carter (No. 8): 542 Met hits; five years with the team; one title; huge X factor as yin to Keith’s yang and then as a good man gone too soon.
Back in 2011, I came to a reluctant conclusion, one that surprised me: I said the Mets shouldn’t retire any of those numbers, and Greg didn’t dissent, at least not publicly.
If you retire Tug’s number, don’t you also have to honor John Franco, who was here far longer and racked up far more saves? And does anyone seriously think John Franco’s number should be retired? HoJo flunks the X factor test, as does (by a smaller margin) Koosman. Gooden and Straw are icons but ultimately cautionary what-if tales. As for Gary Carter, he’s beloved and should be , but our love for the Kid and our grief over his death shouldn’t blind us to the fact that he was a Met for just five years, or that one of those years was mediocre and another was awful.
That leaves Keith Hernandez and Mike Piazza. Keith’s a bit short in stats, while Piazza’s short in tenure and never won a title.
In 2011 I concluded that neither quite qualified for having their numbers retired. Is that still true in 2013?
The cute answer would be that neither Hernandez nor Piazza has driven in run since 2011, so how are their cases any better now than they are then? But as fans we’re constantly reassessing players and eras, so our conclusions may change.
And for whatever reason, mine have — I think the Mets should retire 31 and 17, in recognition of two players who defined their eras, and who have come to represent their teams.
True, Piazza’s tenure was abbreviated and he never got a ring. But he gave the Mets star power again when they desperately needed it, and he might go into the Hall of Fame with an NY on his cap. As for Keith, his Mets legend has been on the ascent since “Seinfeld,” and he now embodies the reckless, no-prisoners spirit  of the ’86 team. Retiring their numbers would celebrate their accomplishments, but they’d also pay tribute to brief but glorious periods in team history.
But I think the Mets should then do something else — namely, ease certain numbers into quasi-retirement.
Not retiring a number doesn’t mean you hand it over to the latest wide-eyed arrival from Las Vegas. No Met has worn 31 since Piazza left town, and that’s as it should be. The Mets have kept 24 mostly mothballed since Willie Mays’s cameo, handing it out only to Rickey Henderson and, um, Kelvin Torve. But without speaking ill of Dave Gallagher, David Newhan or Tito Navarro, no Met should have worn 8 or 17 or 36 since their examplars left town either.
The Mets wouldn’t be alone in such quasi-retirements: The Tigers have kept 1 and 47 on ice since the tenures of Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris. It’s a good answer — not a retirement, but a sign of respect that deepens a sense of Mets history.
So there we have it: Retire 31 and 17, with tons of pomp and circumstance. But at the same time, put 8, 16, 18, 36 and 45 on the shelf next to 24, to be assigned infrequently, and only when circumstances warrant. (Sorry HoJo.) If you’re not a gamer of a catcher, you’re not wearing 8. If you’re not a cerebral, skilled lefty starter, you don’t qualify for 36. If you’re not a gutsy fireman with a certain swagger, 45 doesn’t go on your back.
And if Travis d’Arnaud should be the real deal and do 8 proud? We should have such problems.
Until the Mets retire more numbers, put 37 14 41 42 on your chest with a Faith and Fear t-shirt .
If you love Mets’ uniform numbers (and who doesn’t?) you’ll love Mets by the Numbers . Go visit!