It’s the notion of retiring a player’s number, as the Mets will do for Keith Hernandez’s No. 17. It’s more about symbolism than statistics, a referendum on the players’ importance to the team and the city.
Many teams have understood this for a long time. There’s no plaque for Thurman Munson in Cooperstown, N.Y., but the Yankees still retired his No. 15. Ditto 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.
It took the Mets a long time to grasp the concept. In 2016, it took them until their 55th season to retire their second player’s number. That’s because Mike Piazza had just been elected to the Hall of Fame, meaning his No. 31 could join Tom Seaver’s No. 41 in the upper deck in the left field corner at Citi Field.
The Mets also retired managers Casey Stengel (37) and Gil Hodges (14), while Jackie Robinson’s 42th career in Major League Baseball was retired. But the team has been notoriously stingy in identifying players; Even Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher whose No. 8 had been worn since 2001, was not given a retirement, cruel and pointless overhaul until his death in 2012.
Hernandez, 68, is still here. You can find it on SNY broadcasts and Twitter and “Seinfeld” repertory on Netflix. After Saturday’s ceremony, you’ll also find him with other Mets essentials: Seaver, Piazza and Jerry Koosman, whose No. 36 was retired last year. No Met has worn number 17 since 2010 under Fernando Tatis, and now it belongs to Hernandez forever.
“He brought a winning culture, just the way he moved and the way he acted and the way he played,” said Ron Darling, Hernandez’s teammate on the field and in the broadcast booth, adding later, “I didn’t know the game. You can play it right.”
By age 20, with the St. Louis Cardinals, Hernandez had accomplished just about everything a player could: a World Series title, an MVP 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 in June 1983 was traded to baseball’s oblivion: the last-place Mets, for the gift of pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbay.
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“Calm down, okay? Don’t try to rip everyone off. Kicks are boring! Besides, they are fascists. Throw some ground balls, it’s more democratic.”
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“I remember Dave Kingman meeting me at the club — Dave Kingman, who was so dead, never any emotion, straight face, I never saw him smile,” Hernandez said. “He had a big smile on his face to greet me and shake my hand and say, ‘Thank God you’re here because you’re my ticket out of here.’
The Mets were on a downward spiral after trading Seaver in 1977, but by 1983 he was back for the second time. Things were uncertain for the franchise and The Franchise.
“Seaver comes up to me and says, ‘Welcome to the bases,'” Hernandez said. “I’ll go, ‘bases?'” he goes, “I’m spelled backwards too!” I’m gone, where am I? I left the team in first place, I was the reigning world champion and I’m going to, oh my god.
“I get on the bus after the ball game to go back to the hotel, there’s nobody on the bus. After the game I go into the hotel bar, there is no one in the hotel bar. I went, oh boy. So I had three months to really put it all in. “
The Mets finished the 1983 season 68-94, worst in the National League. Hernandez, a California native, considered signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Diego Padres. His father, John, convinced him to stay in New York, reminding him of the Mets’ busy farm system. After seven consecutive losing seasons, the Mets would have their best record (575-395) during Hernandez’s six full seasons in Flushing.
Hernandez made mental and physical changes to prepare for his first spring training with the Mets. Newly separated from his wife, he spent the winter in Philadelphia at the suggestion of a friend, Gary Matthews, who had just finished a season with the Phillies. Matthews liked to run for exercise, and although Hernandez had never trained much in the off-season, he adopted Matthews’ program, running along the Schuylkill River past Boathouse Row to the Art Museum. He arrived at camp in his prime, ready to take on a new role for his 30s: the club’s flamboyant leader and wild man about town.
Hernandez, who quit cocaine before the trade, found a mentor in veteran pinch hitter Rusty Staub. Staub encouraged Hernandez to live in Turtle Bay on Manhattan’s East Side. Hernandez took to his entourage, on and off the field, and was the MVP runner-up as the Mets became a contender, then added Carter in the 1985 season and won the 1986 World Series.
To do so, they first had to get past the Houston Astros in a tight National League Championship Series. Before the final out, in the 16th inning of Game 6 at the angry Astrodome, Hernandez faced Carter and Jesse Orozco on the mound. Orosco gave up a homer off a fastball in the 14th, and a homer by Kevin Bass would end the game. Hernandez told Orozco he would kill him if he threw Bass a fastball.
Orozco threw out all the sliders and hit the bass to win the strikeout. Such was Hernandez’s gravitas.
“I was trying to think about New York sports history and I think of Keith as Mark Messier — a world champion in another organization, an MVP player, a guy who once carried New York. uniform, brought instant credibility,” Darling said. That’s what Keith was to our ’86 players.
Hernandez won six Gold Gloves with a .387 on-base percentage and 80 home runs with the Mets. His .297 batting average ranks second in club history behind John Olerud’s .315 among players with at least 1,500 plate appearances. The Hall of Fame eluded Hernandez, but it looks like he’ll have a chance in the next few years.
Hernandez had more wins per game (60.3) than Harold Baynes, Lee Smith, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Minnie Minoso and Hodges, all of whom were selected by committees in the last four years. He didn’t have the first-basement power of Eddie Murray or Tony Perez or other stars of his era. But he wouldn’t look out of place in Cooperstown.
“Hopefully I have another, what 15, 16, 17, 18 years to live?” Hernandez said. “Maybe it will happen before I kick the bucket.”
The Mets and their owner, Steven Cohen, did not wait for the committee to confirm Hernandez’s legacy. They understand—finally—that they are the guardians of their past, and that Hernandez is vital to their history.