Mr. Andy Esposito has a way of looking at things as no other baseball writer does. Here’s his take on the recent retirement of Keith Hernandez’s Number 17 as seen in NY Sports Day. – Ed.
When the covering comes off, there it will be, No. 17, in Mets pinstripes, now and forever, retired in honor of one of the greatest Mets to wear the colors, Keith Hernandez.
Who doesn’t love Keith Hernandez? The affable broadcaster has now ingrained himself with whole new generations of Mets fans with his charisma and insight in one of the most highly regarded teams of voices calling baseball games, now in his 23rd year in a booth, the last sixteen under the SNY umbrella, but of course, the real reason that No. 17 has been forever mothballed is his valued contributions as a Mets player between 1983-1990, pinnacling with a World Championship in 1986.
The man with the moustache nearly as famous as Tom Selleck’s was of course, deeply moved by the honor.
Hernandez told the NY Post’s Steve Serby in advance of the event, “When I go out on that field, it’s gonna be surreal. I think when the moment comes, and I’m there with my kids, and grandkids, and my brother and family members, and they pull the canvas off, it’s going to be hard for me to fathom. And what makes it so much better is that I’ll be the sixth person, and only the fourth player. I’ll be up there with, my goodness, Casey Stengel, Gil (Hodges), and then of course, with (Tom) Seaver, (Jerry) Koosman, and Mike (Piazza). In 60 years of Mets baseball, it’s a select few.”
And deservedly so. The legendary Hall of Famer Stengel was the team’s first manager from 1962-65. Hodges, the club’s warmly remembered manager when the team won their first title in 1969, will be finally inducted into the Hall of Fame later this month. Seaver and Piazza already own plaques in Cooperstown, and Koos had his number retired by the Mets just last year.
And the entire quintet already have plaques in the Mets Hall of Fame, along with Hernandez, who was inducted in 1997.
There are 27 honorees in the Mets Hall of Fame, and their plaques can be viewed in the Mets Museum, located just off the Jackie Robinson Rotunda as you enter Citi Field’s main entrance.
Hernandez’s accomplishments are many, way more than 17 reasons why his number will now occupy the rafters.
The Northern California native came to the Mets at the trading deadline in 1983 for a pair of pitchers, having been “banished” by the St. Louis Cardinals. At least that’s how Hernandez felt at the time, as he often references the moment as feeling like he was going to baseball’s “Siberia.” After all, the Mets had lost 97 games in 1982, and four of the previous six seasons landed them in last place in the NL East. The other two finishes were next-to-last.
But Hernandez’s baseball-loving father, John, had been admiring a pair of up- and-coming prospects the Mets had in their pipeline, having observed them in minor league games broadcast on ESPN, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, so he encouraged his son to give the Mets a chance.
His father’s influence, while instilling a deep love for baseball in his sons, is also indirectly responsible for Hernandez wearing 17. Even from the West Coast, the Hernandez family grew up with a fervent fanship with the great Mickey Mantle, who famously wore No. 7 with the Yankees.
So when Hernandez was with the Cardinals, he wore 37, as he desired to have something with a 7 in it. But when he got to the Mets, 37, of course, was already retired in honor of Stengel, 7 was on the back of infielder Hubie Brooks, and 27 was on the mound every five days with Craig Swan. So that left 17, and here we are.
Hernandez already had five Gold Gloves, two All-Star appearances, a co-MVP trophy, and batting title (1979) in his showcase when he got to New York.
And he had those intangibles, leadership qualities, an innate knowledge of the game, the ability to hit in the clutch, and an ardent dedication to winning.
So why did the Cards accept pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey for their top-notch first baseman? There were rumors. There were implications. Today, then-Cards skipper Whitey Herzog admits he was ordered to trade Hernandez by ownership.
Mets fans forever say thank you.
As a Met, Hernandez gathered another six Gold Gloves – the most by any Met, and his 11 career Gold Gloves is the most by any first baseman in major league history. He made the All-Star team five more times.
He was a “captain” on the field, a true field leader, and that affinity was recognized by skipper Davey Johnson when he surprised Hernandez by naming him the team’s first Captain during spring training in 1987.
Nearly a quarter century of Mets history had come to pass, and no one had bothered to name a team Captain, but then again, the concept really wasn’t a prevalent thing in baseball.
The Yankees named Lou Gehrig a Captain a half-century or so earlier, but the Bronx Bombers didn’t name another until Thurman Munson in the 1970s.
But there was Hernandez in ’87 with a C on his chest, a notion he despised. It was removed in ’88 when he and Gary Carter were named co-Captains. Hernandez did however, enjoyed being a leader and has described being named Captain as “one of the biggest thrills of my life.”
Perhaps other Mets in their past could have been named Captains, but it is a title without formal duties, more so in recognition for respect, veteran leadership, and a dedication to the team concept. It’s not like baseball team captains have to go out on the field and call heads or tails to see who’s going to kick off or anything.
Bud Harrelson or Seaver would have made good Captains in 1969, or maybe Donn Clendenon after he arrived mid-season via a trade. Ed Kranepool could have been a team Captain for several Mets campaigns. After all, he was with the club for 17 seasons. Certainly Rusty Staub had those intangibles during his first go-round with the club in the 1970s. And maybe Hodges could have been a Captain during the end of his playing days with the Mets in ’62 and ’63.
The guest star of that classic “Seinfeld” episode displayed leadership abilities from the git-go. But perhaps it was best exemplified by the now legendary situation toward the end of Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS, when the Mets were faced with a critical moment…
The NL East Champs – who had won a franchise-record 108 games that year, were leading 7-4 in the 16th inning of that crucial extra-inning contest, but the then-NL Astros had two on with two out and a tough-out in Kevin Bass at the plate. Hernandez paid a visit to the mound to confront relief specialist Jesse Orosco and Carter.
Orosco has recalled on numerous occasions Hernandez’s firm advice. “If you throw another fastball, I’ll kill you,” Orosco likes to recall.
Bass struck out on a slider and the next stop was the World Series for New York.
Perhaps you were watching way past midnight on the night of July 4, 1985, when the Mets and Braves faced off in Atlanta for another extra-inning classic that ended just before 4:00 AM the morning of July 5th.
Hernandez hit for the cycle in that 19-inning extravaganza, the only time he accomplished that feat during his career. You could debate why it took 11 plate appearances – although he was robbed of a single in the third inning when Atlanta outfielder trapped a line drive by Hernandez that was declared an out in the pre-replay days.
The cat-adoring Hernandez doubled off Rick Mahler in the first inning, tripled off Jeff Dedmon in the fourth, and homered off Steve Shields in the 8th. It took a single off Terry Forster in the 12th to complete the cycle, but hey, it was one game and a full cycle no matter how you slice it.
The Mets won that crazy contest, 16-13. Hernandez ended up with a 4-10 scorecard note, with a walk and three RBIs.
And then there is that other legendary moment at the end of Game 6 in the ’86 World Series, when Hernandez all but gave up in the tenth inning after flying out, leaving the team just one out from losing the Fall Classic. Hernandez retreated to the manager’s office, where he joined baseball lifer Darrell Johnson (who managed the Red Sox in 1975), and PR exec Jay Horwitz to watch the end of the game on TV.
But then Carter started that famous rally, the Mets came back to win, but the superstitious Hernandez chose to stay glued to the manager’s chair in the office, rooting from that “lucky” spot.
“To this day, I still think that chair had hits in it,” Hernandez has claimed.
The Mets did it up right celebrating Hernandez this weekend. They mowed the No. 17 into the outfield grass. They gave out Hernandez bobbleheads to the fans. Even the New York Times got into the act, creating a customized crossword puzzle that focused on Keith’s life and career.
SNY produced a wonderful documentary on No. 17’s life and career, “He’s Keith Hernandez,” a takeoff on the line from his Seinfeld episode.
Ah yes, Seinfeld. Hernandez was famous for baseball, but when he appeared in Jerry Seinfeld’s classic series as Elaine’s love interest and Jerry’s new best bud, his celebrity level shot up tenfold.
As it were, Hernandez was Seinfeld’s favorite player, so he and cohort Larry David concocted a plot where Kramer and Newman believe Hernandez spit on them after a game when Newman shouted an insult. The hour-long episode then evolved into a parody of the movie, “JFK,” where a “second-spitter,” was considered, and who later turned out to be Roger McDowell.
Coincidentally, Hernandez was the 15th Met to wear No. 17, and there have been 15 Mets to don the designation after Mex’s tenure in Flushing, the last being Fernando Tatis, Sr., who wore 17 from 2008-10.
That was the last time 17 was issued, so it really was unofficially retired for over a decade, and everyone who thought about it knew why, but now it’s on the record.
Some of the previous “tenants” to wear 17 were somewhat memorable for their contributions as a Met and worth noting, but again, only one other wore it during a Championship season.
The first was the ever-lovable Don Zimmer, who was the baby Mets’ first third baseman in 1962. His Mets career started out something like 0-35, but shortly after he banged out his first hit for the club, he was traded. He was “hot!”
The next No. 17 also carried an interesting history as a Met, Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman. On a classic episode of “Kiner’s Korner” after a rare Mets win in the Polo Grounds, Kiner asked Coleman, “What’s your wife’s name, Choo Choo, and what’s she like?” Coleman answered, Her name is Mrs. Coleman, and she likes me.”
Outfielder Rod Gaspar wore 17 during the historic first World Championship season in 1969. Infielder Teddy Martinez inherited the number and was wearing it when the Mets made their second trip to the World Series in 1973.
Felix Millan did the number proud with stellar defense at second base for four seasons (1974-77). At least two Cy Young recipients wore 17 as Mets (they just didn’t win the award as Mets) – David Cone and Bret Saberhagen, and it should be noted that Coney adopted No. 17 in 1991 after first wearing No. 44, in tribute to his then former teammate.
The complete list of Mets who 17: Don Zimmer (1962), Choo Choo Coleman (1962-63), Frank Lary (1964-65), Dennis Ribant (1964), Jim Schaeffer (1965), Dick “Dr. StrangeGlove” Stuart (1966, and no, that nickname was not due to stellar defense), Larry Elliot (1966), Don Bosch (1967-68), Rod Gaspar (1969-70), Teddy Martinez (1970-73), Felix Millan (1974-77), Gil Flores (1978-79), Jerry Morales (1980), Ellis Valentine (1981-82), Keith Hernandez (1983-90), David Cone (1991-92), Jeff McKnight (1993), Bret Saberhagen (1994-95), Brent Mayne (1996), Luis Lopez (1997-98), Mike Bordick (2000), Kevin Appier (2001), Satoru Komiyama (2002), Graeme Lloyd (2003), Jason Anderson (2003), Wilson Delgado (2004), Dae Sung Koo (2005 – remember that double Koo somehow walloped?), Jose Lima (2006), David Newhan (2007), and Fernando Tatis, Sr. (2008-10).
So who’s next to earn that big disc on the upper left field façade at Citi Field? Well, of course, David Wright’s No. 5 is a given, and that could become a reality as early as next season, but David’s schedule was somehow conflicted enough to even attend this year’s Oldtimer’s event in August, so that announcement may be stalled for a while.
And it would be a nice gesture if Mets owner Steve Cohen recalls the verbal announcement original team owner Mrs. Joan Payson made in 1972 when she virtually ordered the Mets to trade for her beloved Willie Mays. She said the team would retire his No. 24, but that never became a reality under the Wilpon regime.
Today, we still enjoy Keith Hernandez as he partners up with Ron Darling and Gary Cohen in what many in the baseball community perceive as the best triple-threat broadcast booth in the industry, and hopefully for many years to come.
“Gary is the quarterback of our booth,” Hernandez told Jay Horwitz in the latest issue of Mets Magazine, the game day program. “I stay in my lane and talk hitting, and let Ronnie talk about pitching. I know I am sometimes the comic relief, and I’m okay with that. I think the fact that we are friends make the broadcast even better.”