- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

What’s in a Number?

Our co-newest Met is wearing a familiar number.

Flamethrower Edwin Diaz [1], whom I already appreciated for being really good before discovering his nickname is “Sugar,” will wear 39. That’s no particularly big thing in the annals of Met lore: the first 39 that pops into my head is Gary Gentry [2], the blueprint for all too many young Met hurlers over the years. Thirty-nine was last worn by Jerry Blevins [3], who’s expressed interest in returning to the Mets and had to at least frown at seeing his digits on another back. Oh, and didja know Diaz was discovered by Joe McIlvaine? Neither did I until I Google’d it, but any new Met who arrives with links to our past makes me a little happier to welcome him.

But enough about Sugar. It’s the link to our past that’s left some fans feeling salty about that other, better-known acquisition.

Robinson Cano [4] appeared at his news conference, and will presumably appear on Opening Day, with 24 on his back. That’s a number to conjure with, worn by Willie Mays [5] during his return to the city that made him a legend and that he enhanced quite a bit himself. After Willie said goodbye to America, the number was mothballed in Flushing, at least for the most part. It was briefly and mysteriously assigned to the anonymous Kelvin Torve [6] in 1990, a tempest in a teapot that Torve recalled rather drolly in an interview [7] with our pals at Mets by the Numbers. After discovering the mistake, or at least the outcry, Charlie Samuels hastily reassigned Torve to (wait for it) 39.

24 returned again nearly a decade later, adorning the back of Hall of Fame-bound Rickey Henderson [8], who wore it with distinction in his first go-round as a Met and something considerably less than distinction when brought back for a second campaign. And then it returned to numerical limbo until Cano’s arrival.

Give me a minute and I’ll try to sketch out a philosophy of quasi-retired numbers; for now, a little about Cano. I don’t think 24 should be handed out to just anybody (sorry, Kelvin Torve), but Robinson Cano is not just anybody. He’s somewhere between a likely and a certain Hall of Famer, with Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric ranking him ahead [9] of the likes of Cooperstown residents Ryne Sandberg [10], Frankie Frisch [11], Roberto Alomar [12], Craig Biggio [13] and Nellie Fox [14]. (And if you think PEDs have destroyed the game, best not to Google “Willie Mays red juice.”) Cano is a .300 lifetime hitter with 300+ career home runs, eight All-Star nods and a decent chance at 3,000 hits.

That checks the Numerically Worthy box, but Cano has a more personal reason for wearing 24, too. He’s named for Jackie Robinson [15] and donned 24 for the other New York franchise, the one in the arriviste league with bad rules, because it was the inverse of Jackie’s 42. He then switched to 22 in Seattle because 24 had been retired for Ken Griffey Jr. [16] For me, that ticks the Awareness of Baseball History and Personal Connection boxes as well.

But for most Mets fans, this isn’t an argument about Robby Cano. It’s about Willie Mays.

In the Twitter era we’re expected to have insta-opinions and die upon never-before-glimpsed hills. That’s left us all struggling with an idea that once didn’t seem particularly revolutionary: that multiple things can be true at once. Was Willie Mays’s Mets tenure a glorious homecoming or a regrettable example of an immortal lingering too long at the fair? Before we head for our respective corners, snapping and snarling, let’s at least consider the possibility that it was both.

And there’s a further complication here. Mays returned to New York in large part because Joan Payson adored him beyond words — she stood all but alone among shareholders in opposing the Giants’ move to San Francisco, and tried unsuccessfully to buy the club to stop their relocation. A few years ago, our friend Jon Springer wisely short-circuited a Mays-and-24 debate by suggesting the Mets indeed retire the number — but for Payson, not Mays.

It’s a lovely idea with a real sense of grace, but that ship failed to sail some time ago. In the meantime, though, is 24’s state of limbo really such a bad thing?

I’d argue it isn’t. I like the idea of quasi-retired numbers; in fact, I wish the Mets would take it further.

I believe that number retirements should be rare events. Linking them to a given criterion — Cooperstown, for instance — is too rigid for me. But I think the caretakers of teams should be cautious about putting digits on the wall, allowing time for reflection and remembering that there are generational superstars in teams’ futures as well as their pasts. On this score, at least, I think the Mets have done well. 31 41 14 37 and the baseball-wide 42 is a solid set, with 5 on deck as an addition at the proper time.

To that, I would add … well, not much, actually. The number I’d put beside those is 17, for the combination of a brief but iconic time in uniform and a far longer, also iconic afterlife. But only because there was a second act to go with the marvelous but brief first one.

I’ll stop here to revisit that idea of believing multiple things can be true. I personally wouldn’t retire any of the other numbers embraced as causes by good people … but if the 2019 Mets decide to put any of them on the wall, I’ll be in the stands getting misty-eyed at the pomp and circumstance and applauding madly. This is a hill to sit down on and talk things over, which sounds a lot more pleasant than dying, particularly if that hill has a view of a nearby ballgame.

What I would do is have another tier of cherished numbers, ones that are out of circulation but not retired, available to special players under special circumstances. What the Mets have done and are doing with 24, in other words — even if they’ve never articulated that philosophy.

It isn’t just Mays who’s been given that treatment. The number 8 hasn’t been worn in a Mets dugout in 16 years, which is as it should be; it shouldn’t have been handed out in 1992, but unless you have a time machine it’s too late to fix that. (And, anyway, you should reserve it for more important things, such as telling Timo to run, having Duda practice throws home, and maybe killing Hitler or something.) The aforementioned 17 hasn’t been worn since 2010.

That’s a good start, but only a start. If it were up to me, 15, 16, 18, 36 and 45 would join 8, 17 and 24 in being oft-invoked but rarely seen, with their reappearance an event to be discussed just as we’re doing now. I’m sure Austin Jackson [17] is a good person, but he shouldn’t be wearing 16; if Jacob deGrom [18] wants that number, on the other hand, his 2018 invocation of 1985 makes him worthy of it. (And if Jake wants to go on adding to the lore around 48, that’s fine too.) You get the idea: keep 15 for deadly hitters who patrol center field, 36 for give-no-quarter lefties, 45 for excitable closers who make you sweat but also make you believe.

And it’s also OK if none of that is discussed in a media guide, and quasi-retirements are part of the lore safeguarded and curated by fans, columnists and mildly insane bloggers. “Why does no one wear No. 8?” is the starting point of a conversation. So is “who’s Jerry Koosman [19]?” There will always be young fans or new fans who don’t know this stuff but will absorb those tales like orange-and-blue sponges, the way we once did. Tales for the middle innings of a 12-3 stumble, or a rain delay on a warm summer night, the kind of stories that make new fans realize they’re both witnessing and adding to a much longer narrative. Tales of once upon a time, to be sure, but also of what is to be, with new players and new seasons crafting additions to that unrolling story.