Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Numbers? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Numbers

Major League Baseball teams retire numbers faster than a Tom Seaver fastball.

Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan's number 30 was retired by the Texas Rangers after his five seasons of mediocrity, finishing with a record of 51-39. The Tampa Bay Rays retired Wade Boggs' number 12, even though he played only two seasons for the team and had a mere 727 at bats.

Steve Garvey, the famed Los Angeles Dodger, had his number retired by the San Diego Padres for five seasons of play. Garvey played 15 seasons with the Dodgers, and the team has not retired his number 6.

The Houston Astros, a 1962 expansion team that has never won the World Series, have retired nine numbers. It's three more numbers than the storied Boston Red Sox, founded 61 years earlier than the Astros.

But one Houston Astro number is particularly touching, and fitting, for the thoughtfulness of the team's ownership. Pitcher Jim Umbricht died of lymphoma at the age of 33 in 1964. His number 32 was immediately retired. Umbricht won 9 games and lost 5 for the Astros.

And those facts lead to my New York Mets. Thoughtfulness and retired numbers are alien concepts to Fred and Jeff Wilpon, the father and son who own the team. Their refusal to properly recognize the players who have provided Mets fans with unrelenting joy over the years is a continuing disgrace. The last time a number was retired was 20 years ago.

The Mets have retired only three numbers: Tom Seaver's 41, Gil Hodges' 14 and Casey Stengel's 37.

The time has come for the Wilpon family to add three more: number 36 Jerry Koosman, number 17 Keith Hernandez and number 31 Mike Piazza.

Jerry Koosman is the best big game pitcher in the 46-year history of the Mets. It's quite a feat given The Franchise, Seaver, is enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Koosman was the pitching star of the Miracle Mets' glorious triumph over the 109-win Baltimore Orioles juggernaut in the 1969 World Series. After Seaver was defeated in Game One, Koosman pitched six innings of no-hit ball in Game Two, and went 8 2/3 innings to give the Mets a critical 2-1 win.

In Game Five, the unflappable Koosman pitched a complete game victory to close out the Orioles for the most improbable win in World Series history. The images of Koosman embracing catcher Jerry Grote after the final out was caught by left fielder Cleon Jones, and dashing off the field, are iconic.

In Game Three of the 1973 National League Championship Series, against another seemingly unstoppable team, the Cincinnati Reds, Koosman pitched a 9-2 complete game victory to put the Mets up two games to one. Koosman was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1989 after finishing his career third in franchise wins (140), second in innings pitched (2,544.2), fourth in Earned Run Average (3.09) and third in strikeouts (1,799).

The transformation of the Mets from a late 1970's Major League Baseball laughingstock to 1986 World Series champions began on June 15, 1983. That's the day the team acquired Hernandez from the St. Louis Cardinals. He became the undisputed leader of the clubhouse, and was named the team's first captain in 1987.

Hernandez is the greatest fielding First Baseman of all time. He won eleven consecutive Gold Gloves, including six for the Mets. To attempt a bunt against Hernandez is "driving the lane against Bill Russell," said Pete Rose.

And he excelled with the bat, as well. In 3,164 plate appearances "Mex" hit .297, which is the third highest average for a Mets player.

In Most Valuable Player voting, Hernandez finished second in 1984, eighth in 1985, and fourth in 1986. He was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1997. Hernandez is perhaps the most glaring example of the callous ways of the Wilpons because he's still with the team as a superb broadcaster.

Mike Piazza. Does the Wilpon family need an explanation other than the mere mention of his name for why number 31 should be retired? His career statistics don't have to be cited because they're brilliant.

"He was one of those hitters who could change the game with one swing. He was certainly the greatest-hitting catcher of our time, and arguably of all time," said Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine, Piazza's former Met teammate.

When Piazza announced his retirement he said:

"I have to say that my time with the Mets wouldn't have been the same without the greatest fans in the world. One of the hardest moments of my career, was walking off the field at Shea Stadium and saying goodbye. My relationship with you made my time in New York the happiest of my career and for that, I will always be grateful."

It's obvious from Piazza's words that he loved being a Met throughout his eight seasons in New York. His performance on the field and deep affection for the organization should be rewarded. As soon as possible.

Opening Day at Citi Field next year is the opportunity for Fred and Jeff Wilpon to show class and gratitude by honoring Koosman, Hernandez and Piazza . Just like Seaver, Hodges and Stengel, they are everlasting Mets and should be recognized for their years of dedication to the team.