Retired numbers: New York Mets

Three numbers seem to be informally retired; when will the Mets make the honors official?

The major leagues resisted expansion for six decades, then suddenly welcomed four new teams in the early 1960s.

Three of those franchises had trouble settling on locations and nicknames:

  • The Los Angeles Angels morphed by stages into the California Angels, Anaheim Angels, and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim before returning to their original name.

  • The Houston Colt .45s saluted the Space Age by becoming the Astros.

  • The Washington Senators moved to Dallas-Fort Worth, where they’re known as the Texas Rangers.

And then there are the New York Mets, the lone beacon of stability in that initial round of expansion. They have never changed cities or nicknames.

They have also enjoyed the greatest success. The Mets posted the worst record of any expansion team in their inaugural season — an abysmal 40-120 in 1962 — but they went on to win five National League pennants and two World Series titles (1969 and 1986). None of the other expansion franchises from the early 1960s owns more than three pennants or one world championship.

So you would naturally expect the Mets to have been more active than their contemporaries when it comes to jersey retirements. But that’s not really the case.

The Astros lead with nine retired numbers, while the Angels and Rangers have five apiece. The Mets are in the middle with six (and a seventh on the agenda this year).

The strange thing is that New York seems to have put another three numbers in cold storage without telling anyone. Perhaps that means more ceremonies are on the way. Let’s consider the possibilities on this, the 15th stop in our club-by-club review.

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Mets’ numbers already retired

Let’s run through the Mets’ retirements in numerical order, keeping in mind that one has yet to occur and two don’t involve numbers at all.

It’s generally forgotten that No. 14 Gil Hodges capped his playing career with the Mets, arriving in the expansion draft after 16 mostly glorious seasons as a first baseman for the Dodgers. Hodges blasted the first home run in franchise history, but otherwise struggled to a .248 average in two years with the Mets (1962-1963). He returned as the club’s manager in 1968, winning a wildly improbable world championship a year later, only to die suddenly in 1972.

No. 31 Mike Piazza caught for five clubs during his Hall of Fame career, though his longest tenure came with the Mets (1998-2005). He ranks first in club history with a .542 slugging average, and he’s third among all Mets for batting average (.296) and home runs (220).

An asterisk goes next to Jerry Koosman (1967-1978), whose No. 36 was supposed to have been retired last year, though the ceremony was delayed by Covid-19. The former pitcher ranks third in franchise history in wins (140) and strikeouts (1,799), and he’s second to staffmate Tom Seaver in games started for the Mets (395 for Seaver, 346 for Koosman).

Seven world titles with the Yankees earned No. 37 Casey Stengel a plaque in Cooperstown. His subsequent stretch as manager of the Mets (1962-1965) was wildly unsuccessful, as suggested by his record of 175-404. But Stengel established the Mets as a box-office attraction with his colorful style, garbled syntax, and flashes of wit. “Lovely, just lovely,” Stengel said when he saw the Mets’ new stadium. “The park is lovelier than my team.”

Few would deny that No. 41 Tom Seaver was the greatest figure in franchise history. The Hall of Fame pitcher notched 198 victories in 12 years in New York (1967-1977, 1983). His greatest season was 1969, when he won his first Cy Young Award (of three) and willed the Mets to the world title with a 25-7 record. Seaver is No. 1 on the Mets’ all-time lists for wins, earned run average (2.57), strikeouts (2,541), and wins above replacement (78.8).

The Pirates have retired No. 4 for Ralph Kiner, who led the National League in home runs every season from 1946 to 1952. The latter season predated the Mets’ birth by a decade, so why has New York also honored Kiner by retiring a numberless jersey? Because Kiner served as a Mets broadcaster from 1962 to 2013.

William Shea was an obscure lawyer when Robert Wagner, the mayor of New York, tapped him in 1957 to recruit a new National League club after the Dodgers and Giants fled to the West Coast. “I started out to get a team, and it looked easy,” he later recalled. It wasn’t. Shea’s handiwork, the Mets, wouldn’t begin play for five seasons. The team’s new ballpark was named in his honor in 1964, and a uniform without numerals was retired.

Mets’ candidates for retired numbers

The franchise has seven plausible candidates for additional jersey retirements. We’ll go number by number:

No. 5 David Wright played his entire career as a third baseman for the Mets (2004-2018). Only Seaver accumulated a higher WAR in franchise history than Wright’s 49.2. Wright is the club’s all-time leader in runs (949), hits (1,777), and runs batted in (733). He ranks second to Ed Kranepool in games played in a Mets uniform (1,585). 

No. 8 Gary Carter spent only five years as a Mets catcher (1985-1989), but they were momentous seasons. The greatest was 1986, when Carter sparked the world championship club. The Hall of Famer drove in 105 runs that year and led the National League in getting hit by pitches (21) and sacrifice flies (15).

No. 15 Carlos Beltran stands a decent chance of making it to Cooperstown when he become eligible in two years. The center fielder piled up 2,725 hits for seven clubs, including 878 in seven seasons with the Mets (2005-2011).

An unlimited future seemingly awaited No. 16 Dwight Gooden (1984-1994), who won the Cy Young Award at the age of 20, posting a dazzling 24-4 record with 268 strikeouts in 1985. Cocaine and alcohol would eventually derail Gooden’s career, though he still ranks second on the Mets’ all-time lists for wins (157) and strikeouts (1,875), and he’s third in WAR (46.4).

No. 17 Keith Hernandez was probably better during the first half of his career in St. Louis, where he won the National League’s 1979 Most Valuable Player Award. But the first baseman batted a solid .297 with the Mets (1983-1989) and won six Gold Gloves in New York. Hernandez led the famed 1986 Mets with a .310 batting average, 34 doubles, and 94 walks. He has retained his ties with the club as a broadcaster since 1998.

No. 18 Darryl Strawberry debuted as the National League Rookie of the Year. The right fielder went on to make seven All-Star squads during his eight seasons with the Mets (1983-1990). He remains the franchise leader in home runs (252) and is second in runs batted in (733).

No. 48 Jacob deGrom (2014-2021) is the current Met with the best chance of seeing his number retired someday. DeGrom, who is second to Seaver among all franchise pitchers in ERA (2.61), won consecutive Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019. He already ranks fourth in franchise history in WAR (38.1).

The outlook

The Mets are giving us a few hints about the future.

Nobody has worn Wright’s No. 5 since his retirement in 2018. Nor has any player been handed Carter’s No. 8 in the past 20 years. And Hernandez’s No. 17 has been out of circulation for more than a decade.

It would seem that all three are destined to join Koosman in ceremonies at Citi Field over the next few years. If Carter and Hernandez are honored, the Mets would finally be saluting a pair of their champions from 1986, probably the greatest squad in franchise history.

The numbers of other candidates — those of Beltran, Gooden, and Strawberry — are being worn by present-day Mets. And deGrom, of course, is only 32. The Mets have him under contract through 2024.

Beltran had some of his greatest years with the Mets — such as 41 homers, 116 RBIs, and a Gold Glove in 2006 — but he left no postseason legacy in New York. It could be argued that he made a bigger mark in Kansas City, where he also played seven seasons and won a Rookie of the Year Award.

And, of course, there also is the question of his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, which cost Beltran his appointment as manager of the Mets last year.

Gooden’s legacy is clouded by his drug problems, while Strawberry’s biggest hurdle is acrimony. He was lured from the Mets by the Dodgers as a free agent after the 1990 season. It wasn’t a pleasant parting. “They just let me walk away,” Strawberry groused at the time. Do the hard feelings endure?

It seems likely that the Mets will eventually formalize their three unofficial number retirements, and then they’ll sort things out from there.

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