It’s a feel thing, the notion of retiring a player’s number, because the Mets will do for Keith Hernandez’s No. 17 on Saturday. It’s more about symbolism than statistics, a referendum on the meaning of a player to a team and a town.
Many teams have long understood this. There isn’t any plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y., for Thurman Munson, however the Yankees retired his No. 15 anyway. Same with Johnny Pesky and the Boston Red Sox, Frank White and the Kansas City Royals, Randy Jones and the San Diego Padres and on and on and on.
The Mets took an extended time to understand the concept. It took them until their fifty fifth season, in 2016, to retire a second player’s number. That was because Mike Piazza had just been elected to the Hall of Fame, meaning his No. 31 could join Tom Seaver’s No. 41 on the facing of the highest deck within the left field corner at Citi Field.
The Mets had also retired the numbers of managers Casey Stengel (37) and Gil Hodges (14), and Jackie Robinson’s 42 is retired throughout Major League Baseball. However the team was notoriously stingy in recognizing players; even Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher whose No. 8 has been out of use since 2001, was not honored with a number retirement before his death in 2012, a cruel and pointless oversight.
Hernandez, 68, continues to be here. You’ll find him on SNY broadcasts and Twitter and “Seinfeld” reruns on Netflix. After Saturday’s ceremony, you may also find him in a lineup with other essential Mets players: Seaver, Piazza and Jerry Koosman, whose No. 36 was retired last 12 months. No Met has worn No. 17 since Fernando Tatis Sr. in 2010, and now it belongs to Hernandez endlessly.
“He brought a winning culture, just the way in which he moved and the way in which he acted and the way in which he played,” said Ron Darling, Hernandez’s teammate on the sphere and in the published booth, adding later, “I didn’t know the sport may very well be played that appropriately.”
In his 20s, with the St. Louis Cardinals, Hernandez achieved nearly every thing a player could hope to do: a World Series title, a Most Useful Player Award, a Silver Slugger, two All-Star selections and five Gold Gloves at first base.
He also used cocaine, clashed with Manager Whitey Herzog, and got traded in June 1983 to baseball oblivion: the last-place Mets, for the giveaway price of pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey.
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“Chill out, all right? Don’t attempt to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls, it’s more democratic.”
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“I remember Dave Kingman meeting me within the clubhouse — Dave Kingman, who was so deadpan, never any emotion, straight face, I never saw him smile,” Hernandez said. “He had a giant smile on his face to greet me and shake my hand, and he said, ‘Thank gosh you’re here, since you’re my ticket out of here.’”
The Mets had been in a spiral since trading Seaver in 1977, but by 1983 he was back for a second stint. Things had gotten loopy for the franchise and The Franchise.
“Seaver comes as much as me and says, ‘Welcome to the Stems,’” Hernandez said. “I am going, ‘Stems?’ He goes, ‘Mets spelled backwards!’ I went, ‘Where am I?’ I left a team in first place, was a defending world champion, and I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh.’
“I get on the bus after the ballgame to return to the hotel, there’s nobody on the bus. I am going into the hotel bar after the sport, there’s nobody within the hotel bar. I went, ‘Oh, boy.’ So I had three months to essentially soak all of it in.”
The Mets finished the 1983 season 68-94, worst within the National League. Hernandez, a California native, considered signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers or the San Diego Padres. His father, John, persuaded him to remain in Latest York, reminding him of the Mets’ loaded farm system. After seven losing seasons in a row, the Mets would have the majors’ best record (575-395) during Hernandez’s six full seasons in Flushing.
Hernandez prepared himself with mental and physical changes before his first spring training with the Mets. Newly separated from his wife, he spent the winter in Philadelphia on the suggestion of a friend, Gary Matthews, who had just finished the season with the Phillies. Matthews liked to run for exercise, and while Hernandez had never trained much within the off-season, he took to Matthews’s program, running along the Schuylkill River, past Boathouse Row, right down to the Art Museum. He reported to camp in peak condition, able to embrace a latest role for his 30s: wizened clubhouse leader and debonair man about town.
Hernandez, who had stopped using cocaine just before the trade, found a mentor in Rusty Staub, the veteran pinch-hitter. Staub encouraged Hernandez to live in Manhattan, on the East Side, in Turtle Bay. Hernandez took to his surroundings, on and off the sphere, and was the runner-up for M.V.P. The Mets became contenders, then added Carter for the 1985 season and won the World Series in 1986.
To do it, they first needed to outlast the Houston Astros in a tense National League Championship Series. Before the ultimate out, within the sixteenth inning of Game 6 on the frenzied Astrodome, Hernandez met with Carter and Jesse Orosco on the mound. Orosco had given up a homer off a fastball within the 14th, and a homer by Kevin Bass would lose the sport. Hernandez told Orosco he would kill him if he threw Bass a fastball.
Orosco threw all sliders and struck out Bass to win the pennant. Such was the gravitas of Hernandez.
“I used to be trying to think about the history of Latest York sports, and I believe of Keith a little bit bit like I believe of Mark Messier — a world champion with one other organization, an M.V.P. player, a man that, once he wore a Latest York uniform, brought fast credibility,” Darling said. “And that’s what Keith was for our ’86 players.”
Hernandez won six Gold Gloves with the Mets, with a .387 on-base percentage and 80 home runs. His .297 average ranks second in club history to John Olerud’s .315 amongst players with at the least 1,500 plate appearances. The Hall of Fame has eluded Hernandez, but he would appear to have a probability in the subsequent few years.
Hernandez had more wins above substitute (60.3) than Harold Baines, Lee Smith, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Minnie Miñoso and Hodges, who’ve all been elected by committees within the last 4 years. He didn’t have the ability of Eddie Murray or Tony Perez or other star first basemen of his era. But he wouldn’t look misplaced in Cooperstown.
“Hopefully I’ve got one other, what 15, 16, 17, 18 years of life?” Hernandez said. “Perhaps it’ll occur before I kick the bucket.”
The Mets and their owner, Steven Cohen, didn’t wait for a committee to validate Hernandez’s legacy. They understand — finally — that they’re stewards of their past, and Hernandez is significant to their story.