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Your Number or Your Name

Spring Training was welcomed heartily last Saturday to 31 Piazza Drive in Port St. Lucie and, perhaps because it’s only been televised back to New York thrice thus far, has yet to expend its novelty factor. At the intersection of Brinson (Lewis, one of those few visiting Marlins who doesn’t require an introduction) and Clover (Park, where Tradition went to die), Over and over we grow used to baseball that isn’t quite the baseball we are whetting our appetite less than four weeks from today. It’s the baseball with possible stalemates instead of decisive outcomes. It’s the baseball whose broadcast availabilities are piecemeal depending on your subscription choices. It’s the baseball played predominantly under the sun rather than the lights. It’s getting the hang of things on Piazza Drive as prelude to life on Seaver Way.

Mostly, it’s numbers and names. The names that we know will be the names we’ll summer with. For two innings, generally speaking, it’s McNeil, Alonso, Conforto, what have you. For the next seven (no extras), it’s vague familiarity that fills in with increased exposure to Mets who’ve never been Mets in the official sense, may never be Mets in the official sense, but are Mets in late February and, presumably, a while in March.

I don’t much know them yet, so until they make a lasting impression, they are who I decide they are.

They’re Quinn Brodey, a small-town New England operator with an accent to match in the latest Ben Affleck passion project. He can pahk his cah with the best of ’em and doesn’t even use Smaht Pahk [1].

They’re Ryan Cordell, a cross between Rydell High from Grease and Cordell Hull from FDR’s cabinet. Ryan and the outfield go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.

They’re Erasmo Ramirez, who, for me, evokes both Butters’s robot pal Awesom-O on South Park and Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School, from which my mother graduated the same year Jackie Robinson was a freshman in the borough.

They’re David Peterson, a legit pitching prospect, not to be confused with Tim Peterson, a middling pitcher who I just noticed left via free agency five months ago despite my keeping strenuous tabs [2] on such departures.

They’re Max “The Island of Dr.” Moroff (per Chris Berman, you’d figure).

They’re Ali Sanchez, who I remember from last Spring Training, when every time his name came up, I Pavlovlishly hummed “Take A Little Rhythm [3],” an adult contemporary 1980 hit for Ali Thomson, because until further notice, Ali Thomson is what I hear when I hear Ali Sanchez.

They’re Chasen Shreve, in Chasin’ Shreve, a coming-of-age drama that airs Thursdays at 9 on Freeform, formerly ABC Family; Fox Family Channel; The Family Channel; and CBN…sort of like Clover Park is formerly First Data Field; Tradition Field (twice); Digital Domain Park; and Thomas J. White Stadium.

They’re Tim Tebow once more. Tim Tebow is a Brigadoon-level Met every Spring. He appears from out of nowhere, grabs our attention for reasons no longer obvious and fades into the mists of Binghamton just as quickly. Tebow homered on Tuesday in Lakeland, wearing No. 85.

Which is Spring Training like it oughta be. The minor leaguers who won’t be joining us on Opening Day should be wearing No. 85. Actually, the globally famous Tim Tebow should be wearing No. 15, just as he did for any number of football squads, but that’s Carlos Beltran’s number, and Carlos Beltran…well, Beltran isn’t currently around to lay claim to 15, but one imagines the Mets don’t want to be even subtly reminded of their previously best-laid plans. (Luis Rojas is an unobtrusive No. 19 in case you haven’t noticed.)

Tebow, besides being exceptional in most contexts, is an exception to how the Mets are cataloguing their participating minor leaguers these Springs. We are so wedded to the concept of the high-numbered extra men that we may not have allowed it to imprint on our consciousness that when the Mets borrow players ticketed for Syracuse and so forth, they let them play ball in the tops they wear in their usual guises on the other side of camp. That means blue jerseys with their names stitched like major leaguers and numbers that aren’t enormous, give or take a Tebow. The names are a nice touch, I suppose. Gives a person a sense of identity. As the publisher of a magazine I worked for in the last century said to my editor when my editor mischievously arranged for a conference badge to identify me to one and all as “Li’l Spud,” names are important. “You don’t want to make the kid” — me, that is — “look like a non-entity.”

[4]

An extra 5 in Spring 2014 (from Newsday).

Major league franchises may treat their minor leaguers like non-entities in ways that count [5], but at least the Mets haven’t been withholding their dignity from their Spring Training uniforms. In 2014, for example, Matt Reynolds, coming off a Single-A season of little distinction, saw exhibition game action in No. 5. No. 5, you are probably aware, was being used by another Met at the time — for a very long time. But it was Spring Training, and everybody tacitly agrees that what happens in Spring Training mostly stays in Spring Training because nobody much remembers what happens in Spring Training. Besides, in the Spring of 2014, you had no problem sorting through the 5s on the Mets. Reynolds would be off to Double-A, and the 5 among 5s, David Wright, would be where he always was, at third base in Flushing.

It’s six years later, and, perhaps because I wasn’t mentally prepared for it, when a Met wearing 5 appeared in the ninth inning of the Mets’ second Spring game of 2020, I was slow to absorb what I was looking at.

“That guy’s wearing 5.”
“Why does that look so unusual?”
“It’s Steve Henderson’s number.”
“And Davey Johnson’s. He wore 5, too.”

It took me more than 5 seconds to fully comprehend the significance of 5 on a Mets jersey. “Oh, right…Wright. He’s 5.” No Met has worn 5 in a regulation major league game since September 29, 2018, and unless amnesia overtakes Citi Field’s rosterization process, it never will again. It is not up for the slightest debate that it’s in line to join 37, 14, 41, 31 the recently sanctified [6] 36 and the overdue 17 (I’m thinking Kooz coming high and inside on stagnant precedent makes room for Keith). Nothing is ever certain when it comes to the Mets tipping their caps properly at their heritage, but 5 looms as a mortal retirement lock.

[7]

Now pitching…No. 5? (From SNY via @jacob_resnick)

That said, and at the unintended risk of blaspheming the Captain, I have to admit: 5 looked good out there last Sunday. I don’t offer that as a specific assessment of the pitcher (!) wearing it; no offense to him, either. The single-digit hurler was Harol Gonzalez, whose one inning of work encompassed three hits but no runs (thanks to a 9-2 putout executed by Brodey the character from the Affleck film). Harol — who doesn’t mind “d” when it bails him out of trouble — has been in the Met system since 2014. The righty won a combined 12 games between Binghamton and Syracuse last season, with an ERA barely over 3. Maybe we’ll see him at Citi someday. We surely won’t see him in 5.

Still, 5, however fleeting its unanticipated appearance, was a welcome sight, almost as welcome as February baseball itself. I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing 5 on a Mets uniform in some semblance of Mets action. I don’t mean I’ve missed seeing Wright, who in a kinder world would be limbering up for the final season of his eight-year contract now, speaking of best-laid plans. Again, no disrespect to David. I’d love if he had remained robust and continued to add to his stack of club records. Of course I miss David Wright.

But on Sunday it hit me that I missed 5. It is, on its own aesthetic merits, a great sports number. It’s fresh. It’s clean, especially set against a white jersey. It’s inherently possibility-laden. It’s ready to go. It’s got a “whoosh” quality to it, not to confused with those obnoxious swooshes unnecessarily taking up space on MLB jerseys all of a sudden.

[8]

You can’t talk New York sports legends who have worn 5 without eventually recalling ALL the berry, berry good players who made it famous.

It’s a great New York sports number, too, and I don’t even need to pay homage to someone known as “the Yankee Clipper” to say that.

• Don May wore 5 for the 1969-70 Knicks. May wore it mostly at the end of the bench — only 238 minutes played, all of 96 points scored — but we’re talking about the best Knicks team ever, and the first team I ever followed from the beginning of a season to its glorious end. Bonus points for May sometimes being called “Donnie,” which also strikes me as fresh and clean.

• Billy Paultz wore 5 for the Nets of the early ’70s, anchoring the middle for a team that went to two ABA finals and won a red, white and blue-balled championship in 1974. They called Billy Paultz “the Whopper” — he had seven inches and a listed 35 pounds on Donnie May, but 5 worked for him as well. It’s a versatile number.

• Denis Potvin wore 5 for the Islanders for fifteen years. His debut in 1973-74, coinciding with the Nets’ first Long Island championship season, marked the start of something big in Uniondale, bigger even than the 6’11” Paultz. As a rookie, Potvin won the Calder Trophy. As a defenseman, he won the Norris Trophy repeatedly. As the Captain in a sport where Captain means everything, he skated four Stanley Cups around the rink. Like “Donny,” “Denis” sans the second “n” has a certain savoir five to it.

• Pat Leahy wore 5 for the Jets even longer than Potvin wore it for the Isles, kicking through if sometimes into brutal winds between 1974 and 1991. I groaned in the wake of a few of his more painful Shea misses, but that didn’t stop me, when I shockingly got his attention on the sideline at Tampa Stadium in 1984, from telling him, “Great kicking, man!” Pat momentarily stared at me like I was crazy before wisely ignoring me.

• Sean Landeta wore 5 for the Giants when the Giants were at their peak, adding substantial hang time to the grand punting tradition established by Dave Jennings. Jennings, No. 13 for Big Blue, was the best thing about otherwise unlucky Giants football most of the 1970s. By the time Landeta became available to New York in 1985, post-USFL, the Giants were about more than punting, but Sean did his part to secure the club’s 1986 and 1990 championships. He also brutally whiffed on a kick in Chicago one blustery January afternoon, but as Leahy could have told him, wind can a bitter enemy. Landeta punted deep into the 2000s, lingering as the last of the USFLers to remain active in the NFL. Talk about hang time.

• Jason Kidd wore 5 for the New Jersey Nets when the former New York/future Brooklyn Nets mysteriously won two NBA Eastern Conference titles and went to consecutive finals. It seems mysterious only until you remember how the state-of-the-art point guard quarterbacked the Nets from chronic obscurities to perennial contenders upon his 2001-02 arrival just west of town (mixed sports metaphors can be a slam dunk). No wonder Kidd’s 5, like Potvin’s and, yeah, Joe DiMaggio’s, is retired by the Metropolitan Area enterprise that benefited bountifully from its most premier wearer…no offense to the Whopper.

On the eve of the Mets’ first Spring game, I watched the Islanders finally retire 27 for left wing John Tonelli, who now has a banner accompanying Potvin’s 5 among others from those dandy dynastic days at the Coliseum. The most moving aspect of a deeply textured ceremony (hockey does that stuff so well) was Tonelli turning to the current Isles captain Andres Lee, the current occupant of 27, and telling him he’s happy to share it with him in anticipation that someday the number will hang high for the both of them. I don’t expect the Mets to circulate 5 in the same manner. I also don’t expect them to wait decades to give Wright his due.

[9]

One of those 5s you definitely expect to see emblazoned in your stadium, whether it’s Clover Park or Citi Field (from Jeff Hysen).

When — not if — the Mets explicitly retire 5 for David Wright, we presumably won’t see the likes of Harol Gonzalez or Matt Reynolds taking it out for a Spring fling. But since 5 has been spotted floating about in a minor key very recently, I didn’t mind being reminded not only of the 5s from other clubs for whom I’ve rooted over the decades but those Mets who made 5 look sharp before Wright made it his forever after.

Yes, I thought of Steve Henderson, specifically when he first appeared in June of 1977 under the worst of circumstances, as a heralded rookie with zero experience here to compensate for the absence of Tom Seaver. That’s all we want from you, kiddo. Ease our pain and brighten our horizon.

Hendu sort of did, and he didn’t wait very long: two hits in his first start; a walkoff home run in his fourth game; second to Andre Dawson in Rookie of the Year voting despite not making his debut until June 16 (or one day after, if you’ll excuse the expression, June 15, 1977). Steve gave us four fine seasons — and more than just that first game-winning homer, I might have mentioned in these pages [10] more than a few times.

(Bonus points to Steve for loaning 5 to 1979 Spring Training comeback candidate Chico Escuela, a berry, berry classy move on Henderson’s part.)

And, yes, I thought of Davey Johnson, who embroidered his swing into Mets history as No. 15 for the Baltimore Orioles in the top of the ninth inning at Shea Stadium on October 16, 1969, with two out and the O’s down two. Davey swung and lifted a fly ball to deep left field. Cleon Jones caught it. You’ve probably seen video. We’d see Johnson for several years in the National League in the ’70s, but the next time we’d have cause to truly focus on his presence came in October of 1983, when he stood with Frank Cashen, showing off the uniform top the GM presented him upon the announcement that the ex-Oriole would skipper the Mets.

The jersey was No. 31, but that was simply ceremonial [11] (and perhaps force of habit, as Cashen’s prior Baltimore-connected full-time manager, George Bamberger, wore it for a season-and-a-third before taking it off and going fishing). When Davey showed up to manage the Mets for real in the Spring of 1984, he put on No. 5 and kept it on until Cashen demanded it back at the end of May 1990. In between, Davey was the most successful manager the Mets ever had, leading us out of the second division and into the promised land. If somebody had decided 5 was to be retired by the Mets for a man with the given name David, it conceivably could have been done before David Wright approached middle school.

Though Henderson and Johnson were my instinctive 5s before Wright registered in my 2020 thoughts, goodness knows other Mets made 5 modestly to mammothly memorable along the way. You can start with Hobie Landrith, which is what the Mets did with the first pick in the 1961 expansion draft (reflexively insert Prof. Casey Stengel on the necessity of preventing passed balls here if you like). Hobie, whose 90th birthday is on track for March 16, caught the initial game played by the Original Mets and all or part of twenty more before he was traded to Baltimore in June of ’62, three passed balls debited from his Met defensive account. Landrith was the player to be named later for Marv Throneberry. Marv was to be named Marvelous immediately, but he wore No. 2, so he’s another story.

The story of 5 in those early days was catching. Before Joe Pignatano took up residence in No. 52 as longtime bullpen coach and tomato vinetender, Piggy and his mitt finished his playing career in Landrith’s numerical footsteps. Joe’s final major league at-bat produced a triple play, maybe only because a quintuple-play was statistically impossible (even for the 1962 Mets). The next year, Norm Sherry gave 5 a whirl; two years after, Chris Cannizzaro switched out of 8 to 5 in deference to a catcher who had dibs on 8, a fella by the name of Berra. The catching thread continued on and off for 5 through the pre-Wright years. Francisco Estrada, one-quarter of what it took to get Jim Fregosi here, wore 5 in his one Mets game in 1971. Defensive whiz Charlie O’Brien was a 5’er in 1991, after he’d tried 33 in 1990 and before he settled into 22 in 1992 and 1993. Brook Fordyce, whose decade in the bigs began with four games as a Met in 1995, was the last catcher in these parts to wear 5.

Listed in faint ink among the backstops in 5 is Jerry Moses, the Mets’ third catcher behind Jerry Grote and John Stearns when 1975 began. Yogi Berra kept the erstwhile AL All-Star coming out of camp but never saw fit to play him. Before April was out, so was Jerry, though he had the honor of getting introduced on Opening Day at Shea with the rest of the reserves. In the starting lineup that afternoon, batting fifth and playing right versus Steve Carlton and the Phillies, was Dave Kingman. Sky King (he hated being called Kong) socked a homer off Lefty in the fourth, supporting Tom Seaver’s complete game victory.

Dave Kingman wore 26 for the Mets in that game and every game that counted, so what’s he doing here in bold-face type? Well, after he returned for a second Mets go-round in the Spring of 1981, Dave was assigned 5. It was readily available in that the previous occupant, none other than Steve Henderson, was the Met traded to the Cubs to retrieve Sky. Kingman was in 5 when his encore was radiating excitement from St. Petersburg. He was also in 5 when he handed peace-offering pens monogrammed with his initials (D.A.K.) to Met beat writers in the stated hope they’d write fairly accurately of his next New York stint. By Opening Day, however, Dave was back to No. 26 and, soon enough, not that crazy about the press and its proclivity to cover his strikeouts.

[12]

Dave kept neither the beard nor the 5 (from AP via New York Times).

Maybe Kingman should have stuck with 5, given that its inherent versatility meant it fit sluggers pretty well. Chris Jones was a clutch homer machine in No. 5 in the mid-’90s. Jeromy Burnitz gave us our first taste of what was to be a pretty powerful MLB run as No. 5 in ’93 and ’94. Mark Johnson always looked like he’d hit more homers than he did, but the 6’4” first baseman-outfielder (same height as Donnie May) did knock a couple out of the park as a 5 in 2000 and 2002.

Mark Johnson’s 5ness served as parentheses for the flashiest of 5s: Tsuyoshi Shinjo in 2001. Orange hair. Orange wristbands. Charisma so contagious that he, like Kingman, was brought back for a curtain call. Shinjo slipped right back into 5 in 2003, making him the last to wear the number for the Mets before David…and Harol. And directly before the Johnson-Shinjo (squared) era was the hittingest and most elegant of 5s, John Olerud. A .315 average across three full Met seasons, highlighted by his franchise-record .354 in 1998. Man, that cat could swing.

Sandy Alomar never recorded as much as a single while wearing No. 5 for the 1967 Mets, though he’d be given 22 ABs to try. No worries for Sandy — he’d collect 1,168 hits in other major league uniforms and produce a pair of offspring who’d produce prodigious baseball careers of their own. The elder Alomar finished his Met playing tenure only two hits behind Shaun Fitzmaurice, the first Met who wasn’t a catcher to wear 5. Shaun, who attended Notre Dame like Kirk Nieuwenhuis played high school football, registered a .154 average in 1966, or two-hundred points off Olerud’s clip twenty-two years later.

The first Met to keep 5 for more than a year was Ed Charles, who wore it from May of ’67 through October of ’69. The last time the Glider graced it for real was right after Dave Johnson’s flyout to end the aforementioned World Series. Ed was elbowed off the roster shortly thereafter (how dare he turn 36?) and replaced at third base in the offseason by another 5, Joe Foy. The less said there, the better.

Jim Beauchamp showed up at Shea in 1972 and donned No. 24. It wasn’t like the Mets had Willie Mays filling it. Then, about a month into the season, they had Willie Mays filling it. Unsurprisingly, Beauchamp didn’t cite clubhouse seniority and switched quickly to 5, adding pinch-hit dependability’s to the number’s cachet. Jim became the second of three Mets to wear 5 in a World Series — four when we count the manager from 1986.

Beauchamp retired after 1973, but another Jim would jump into 5 in 1974: Jim Gosger, who’d been 18 and 19 in previous Met stretches and was not dead in 2019 despite an In Memoriam montage at Citi Field suggesting he was [13]. After two Jims, two of the next three 5s were Mikes. Sandwiching Steve Henderson were Mike Phillips and Mike Howard, each of them bringing a footnote from home to the retrospective festivities. Phillips was traded away on June 15, 1977, same night as Seaver and Kingman (he also hit for the cycle in 1976). Howard drove in the winning run on Opening Day 1983, better remembered as the day Seaver returned to Shea in orange, blue and 41. Kingman played first base. Just like old 1975 times. Also end times for Howard, who was asked to remove 5 a few days later to make room for Mark Bradley. He never drove in another run or played in the majors again. No. 5 went into storage, awaiting Davey Johnson’s arrival in ’84. Nobody would wear 5 for as long as Johnson until that kid from Virginia came along in 2004 and stuck around until 2018.

Not fittingly neatly into any of these 5-themed sub-narratives is the late Jeff McKnight, but that seems appropriate. As the essential (especially to essays like these) Mets By The Numbers has expertly delineated [14], McKnight is a digital avatar unmatched in Mets lore, having worn 5 different numbers in a non-contiguous Met career that spanned 5 years. One of them was 5, his number for 1992, when he played 5 different positions. I’d love to tell you he hit 5 home runs or something similarly on point, but, honestly, hasn’t Jeff McKnight done enough for us already?

So has Harol Gonzalez, apparently. Pitching in 5 in St. Lucie on SNY drew a little too much attention for the Mets’ liking and perhaps generated a bit too much shame. Four nights after his 5 jumped off the screen, Howie Rose mentioned the Mets took 5 away from Gonzalez and gave him 93. Like Jim Gosger, those archetypal high Spring Training numbers live on.

It was definitely the Wright thing to do, yet, really, no harm was done in the wearing of that gorgeous number one more time, as long as it was for exhibition purposes only. Seeing a Met doing something in 5, if only for an inning late on a February afternoon, provided an unexpected kick and unleashed a flood of memories from what we can now accurately term a stream of Hobie-to-Harol consciousness.

So fresh. So clean. Seriously, 5 looked so damn good out there.

BTW, HBD to Jon Springer’s MBTN [15], which has been diligently tracking 5s and all the other numbers for 21 years as of February 22. Drink up legally, dean of the Met Internet!