Monday, August 1, 2016

The Randomness of Retired Numbers

THE NEW YORK METS would never have retired number 31 for Roy Lee Jackson, Bruce Berenyi, Gene Walter or even team captain John Franco. But they did for Mike Piazza.

What separated Piazza from those who wore the hallowed numerals before him was performance: more homers than any catcher in big league history, 220 as a Met, a .296 average for them compiled over parts of eight seasons, plus leadership of the 1999 Wild Card and 2000 National League pennant winners. He's also a freshly-minted member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Tom Seaver Day
stadium give-away poster
July 24, 1988
So retirement of "his" 31 was a given, right? Right. Sort of. Sort of not.

Number retirement has always been more art than science, the criteria more subjective than objective. In short, the reasons to do, or do not, are not always clear. This is especially true for the Mets, but not uniquely so.

The cross-town Yankees have honored an astonishing 21 players this way -- by far the most in baseball -- not counting certain future Famer Derek Jeter's 2. Still, only half of the Yanks' number retirements are for Hall members (though relief pitcher Mariano Rivera will soon be among them). Their criteria for doing so is inconsistent and likely tinged with office politics.

Number 9 was taken out of circulation for two-time American League Most Valuable Player Roger Maris in 1984, almost two decades after he played the last of seven seasons for them and only after Graig Nettles wore the digit for 11 intervening years. A power-hitting, gold-glove third-baseman, Nettles played more games for the Bronx Bombers than Maris, hit more homers, drove in more runs and played for just as many world series winners: two. Neither made the Hall but 9 was shelved for Maris in the same year Nettles published his Yankees memoir, "Balls."

Reggie Jackson's 44 is also affixed to the wall in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. He's also in the Hall, at least in part for his Yankee exploits that earned him the monicker Mr. October, but he played most of his career for the Oakland A's -- 10 years to just five for the Yanks.  In contrast, Dave Winfield played nine seasons in those same pinstripes -- longer than he did for any other team -- hit almost twice as many homers as Jackson, 205 to 144, and drove in nearly double the runs, 818 to 461. But his 31 has been issued to 25 players since 1990, Winfield's last year in the Bronx.

Hall of Fame? Yes, in 2001. Monument Park? Never. Why? Because he irked the boss.

So, clearly team-tenure, gaudy stats and Hall membership are only part of the calculus for taking digits out of service.

With all due respect...

Fergie Jenkins toiled for 10 seasons with the Chicago Cubs over two stints, winning 20 games six times. Yet his 31 was issued to 13 other players -- including Hall of Famer Greg Maddux --  before being finally taken out of service for them both in 2009.

Wade Boggs was subject to similar (mis)treatment by the Boston Red Sox, who issued 26 to thirteen players after his last season there before finally shelving it this year. A Hall of Famer and 3,000 hit club member, Boggs last played for Boston in 1992, spent five years with the Yankees -- who didn't retire his then number 12  -- and then two seasons with his hometown Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who did.

Jenkins/Maddux 2009
Steve Garvey played 14 of his 19 big league seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning the 1974 NL MVP award and placing in the top six in voting four other seasons. L.A. won four pennants and a world championship while he anchored their infield at first base. His uniform number 6 remains in service. The San Diego Padres, for whom he played the rest of his career, including for the 1984 National League champs, retired Garvey's digit in 1988.

The Montreal Expos deactivated numbers for Rusty Staub, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and Gary Carter. Upon relocation to Washington as the Nationals, new ownership promptly re-activated them, even though Dawson and Carter had made the Hall as Expos. Who cares? The Montreal Canadiens.

The Houston Astros have taken nine numerals out of service, including those of two ex-Mets, Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott. Ryan's 34 was also shelved by the Texas Rangers while his 30 was taken out of service by the Los Angeles, California, Angels of Anaheim.

The Mets haven't honored him. In fact, they retired just four numbers, among the fewest for any team in baseball, skipping some of the most celebrated players in their history. Piazza's ceremony was the team's first such event since 1988, when they enshrined Tom Seaver's 41. Miracle of '69 manager Gil Hodges' 14 was retired posthumously in 1973. Original skipper Casey Stengel's 37 left with him in 1965.

And that's it for 54 years of work.

Not fade away

Consider this: the Astros have honored as many Mets players as have the Mets, two.

For Darryl Strawberry, the team's greatest ever home run hitter, nothing. Fifteen players have worn his 18 since the slugger left after 1990 including Travis d'Arnaud this year.

Gary Carter spent five years with the Mets, cemented their status as contenders, starred for them in the championship year of 1986, and served as co-captain. Three more players wore his 8 before he made the Hall in 2003, whereupon it was unofficially shelved but never enshrined.

Carter died in 2012.

His is not the only uniform number to unceremoniously fade away. Willie Mays' 24 was withdrawn from circulation after he after wore it as a Mets player and coach from 1972 to 1979 (though it was errantly issued in 1990, then purposefully to Rickey Henderson in 1999 and 2000).  It has become Schroedinger's Jersey: simultaneously retired and not. Mays is now 85. There's still time.

Willie Mays of the Mets
from their 1973 yearbook
Finally, there's Keith Hernandez: distinguished wearer of 17 from 1983 to 1989, winner of six straight gold gloves for fielding excellence at first base, leader of the 1986 championship team, captain in 1987, co-captain with Carter in 1988 and 89, now one of their Emmy Award-winning television analysts.

He was, inarguably, one of the best and most important players in their history. Still, his jersey was handed out 14 times after he left.

Nobody's worn Hernandez' numerals since 2010, but they're not retired. True, he missed out on the Hall. But, Carter made it and that didn't solidify his case either. Piazza arrived in Cooperstown just last week. Today, his 31 hangs atop the left field stands at Citi Field in Flushing.

So the questions remain: Why or why not? In or out? Yes or no? As the Jedi Master Yoda once said, "Do or do not. There is no try."

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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