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How exclusive should number retirement be?

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With the Jerry Koosman number retirement ceremony coming up this weekend, Allison McCague and Michael Drago debate the merits of the Mets retiring more numbers.

Colorado Rockies v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Allison McCague: In the aftermath of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Mets’ 1969 World Series title in September of 2019, the Mets announced that they would be retiring Jerry Koosman’s No. 36 in a ceremony the following year. Like many other things, that ceremony was delayed due to COVID-19 and will finally take place this weekend with the fans in attendance to properly commemorate the occasion. Koosman’s number retirement is at least an initial indicator of a change in philosophy on the part of the Mets; he will be the first player not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame to have his number retired by the club. This has led to some speculation and discussion about whether this loosening of standards will lead to more number retirements in the near future—likely David Wright, but perhaps representatives from the 1986 Mets as well, such as Doc Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, or Darryl Strawberry.

Of course, the Mets are now under new ownership since the Koosman number retirement was announced and we do not know exactly how Steve Cohen may choose to proceed in this arena, but he has spoken about the importance of honoring the team’s history in the past. Will the Mets with their numbers retired remain a very small and exclusive group? Or will more of the “edge cases” have their numbers join Seaver, Piazza, Hodges, Stengel, and Koosman on the list? Personally, I think the pivot toward less stringent criteria for number retirement is a good thing, but Michael Drago has a different opinion on the matter. He and I have had versions of this discussion a few times, so we figured we’d bring the debate to the community for discussion. Michael, what are your thoughts on this?

Michael Drago: I always feel like a bit of a wet blanket when this subject comes up, because I think most fans agree with your stance and are excited to see the Mets loosen their standards a bit. And I get it—I am taking the less “fun” position here. It is fun to see the greats of the franchise honored and celebrated, and number retirement is perhaps the most meaningful way to do that. But it is precisely because of how meaningful it is that I think the amount of restraint the organization has historically shown on this front has been a good thing, and why I greeted the news of Koosman’s number retirement with a bit of reluctance.

That’s not meant to be a knock on Koosman’s career, nor is it meant to disparage the careers of other Mets greats who I would also be hesitant to include in this esteemed company. But for me, when I think about the broad criteria I would want to establish for players to get their numbers retired, the main thing for me is that the player in question should have largely defined an important era in the team’s history. Tom Seaver was the first Hall of Fame-caliber player in franchise history and put the organization on the map in the 60s and 70s. Mike Piazza was the most prominent looming presence on a Mets team that made it to the World Series, and his home run after 9/11 is one of the single greatest moments in New York sports history. David Wright—one player whose number I firmly expect to be retired before too long, which I will have no issue with—is the longest tenured career Met outside of Ed Kranepool, and he served admirably as the face and captain of the franchise for many years (and also played an important role on a pennant-winning team).

Jerry Koosman had a terrific career, and he also played an important role on the same winning teams that Seaver was a part of. But did he “define the era” in the same way that Seaver or the other two guys did? What about any of the 1986 contenders? I don’t know that they did. As such, while I certainly agree that they deserve to be honored in their own way, I don’t know that they rise to the level that they deserve to be held in the same category that Seaver, Piazza, and Wright do.

I guess the real question here is what standard a player needs to reach in order to deserve a number retirement. I gave my general criteria here. Allison, what is yours? And how do Koosman and/or any of the 1986 guys meet it for you?

AM: You heard it here first, folks. Michael Drago hates fun.

All kidding aside, I don’t think it’s about rising to the same level as Tom Seaver. There is a reason why he’s The Franchise and a reason why he’s the only Met that’s going to get a statue (maybe someday someone else will join him). It’s about doing more to celebrate and honor the team’s history—something the Mets have been very bad at in the past. The fact that the Wilpons had to be basically bullied into including any Mets personality in the design of Citi Field still rankles and to me this is part of course correcting for that.

I think applying some sort of blanket, rigid standard like “must be in the Hall of Fame” or “must be THE defining guy of the era” or even some sort of statistical threshold removes a lot of the context and nuance involved in these decisions. At its heart, number retirement is about significance to the franchise, something I think we both agree on. And I don’t think numbers or championships or even tenure on the team alone can sufficiently measure that on their own. So my somewhat unsatisfying answer about criteria is that I don’t think there are set criteria here, necessarily.

I will say though that I’m very happy Koosman’s number is being retired and I think he deserves it. I agree that with the 1986 guys it is difficult because there isn’t one guy that defined that team. But rather than say that because there isn’t an easy answer, the Mets just shouldn’t retire any of their numbers, I would say the Mets should arguably retire all of them. Personally, I would give special consideration to Keith Hernandez because he now has a long broadcasting career to add to his player career with the Mets. And even though Darryl Strawberry was not with the Mets for as long as David Wright was, he was also a homegrown player and right there with Wright among the all-time Mets batting leaders. He had seven of his eight All-Star seasons as a Met. The same can be said about Doc Gooden; he may not have had the length of Tom Seaver’s career, but he came up with the Mets, spent all of his best seasons in Queens, and remains second to Seaver in career bWAR for the Mets among pitchers. I would advocate for those three as a minimum, in addition to Wright and eventually, when the time comes, Jacob deGrom.

MD: I agree both with the suggestion that there shouldn’t exactly be a firm “X player must achieve Y” in order to have their number retired (which is why I listed my “criteria” as a broad one) and that Wright and, at his current pace, deGrom will be worthy inclusions into the list of players who achieve the honor. I disagree with the suggestion that I hate fun.

I mean, it’s like you said: the Mets need to do a better job of celebrating their history than they’ve done in the past. But number retirement isn’t the only way to accomplish that goal. You and I were both present last month when Jon Matlack, Ron Darling, and Edgardo Alfonzo were inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame. We both had nothing but positive things to say about how the Mets handled that ceremony; in addition to unveiling their plaques that would be on display at Citi Field, they brought back some of the teammates for each of the players being honored, they put together a wonderful tribute for each of them, and they allowed all three to speak before a celebratory audience (which included many members of their families). I don’t think many people would argue that Matlack, Darling, or Alfonzo deserve to have their numbers retired, but they each still played an important role in the team’s history, and they each got to enjoy a much-deserved embrace by the organization and the fans as a result.

The Mets Hall of Fame seems like an honor that can and should be much more inclusive. There are undoubtedly additional ways that players can be celebrated at Citi Field and beyond. But number retirement remains a step above that, and to me it should be the one that is only reserved for the very best of the best. If it is not, then it runs the risk of losing some of its special significance.

One other point that I would make in particular regards to some of those 1986 guys who are being considered here: I think another unspoken element of deciding who should have their numbers retired is that I also want it to be reserved for players who represented the Mets proudly both on and off the field. And given some of the shenanigans (to generously characterize it) that some of those players got up to during those times, there would be an additional level of discomfort for me to grant them that ultimate and permanent honor. I understand that bringing that moral element into the equation makes it all the more challenging to answer the question at hand here, but I don’t think it can be altogether ignored.

AM: I certainly also agree that the Mets Hall of Fame should be more inclusive and that the threshold for number retirement should be higher than for the Mets Hall of Fame. I think both should move in equal measure toward more inclusivity. The ceremony for Matlack, Darling, and Alfonzo was lovely and actually very well done, I thought. But the problem is that people weren’t in their seats for it. Not enough of them, anyway. The Mets Hall of Fame ceremonies simply aren’t advertised well enough and people don’t consider them enough of an event to travel to the ballpark just for that. However, the number retirement ceremonies are definitely something people go out of their way to attend. And there are more Mets that deserve a day just for them, in my opinion.

As for a morality clause, you won’t find disagreement from me there. But as you say, it is difficult to envision how that would be applied. The Hall of Fame continues to struggle with this as we’ve all seen. But let’s just say I’m certainly never going to advocate for the retirement of No. 7.

But there are already numbers that the Mets have “soft retired.” Gary Carter’s No. 8 hasn’t been used since 2001 and Keith Hernandez’s No. 17 hasn’t been used since 2010. The Mets only give out No. 24 under specific circumstances, such as for Ricky Henderson and Robinson Canó, who wore it for their whole careers. And of course, no one has worn No. 5 since David Wright retired and presumably no one ever will.

So at that point, if there is already a gentleman’s agreement in place, why not just retire the number? It seems silly to keep doing these unofficial number retirements without properly honoring the player with a ceremony.

MD: I am definitely in the “use it or lose it” camp as well. “Soft retirements” make some sense for small amounts of time during certain sensitive moments, I guess (I can understand why they may not have wanted to give out number 8 in the immediate aftermath of Gary Carter’s passing, for instance), but it is indeed silly to keep a number on the shelf for an indefinite number of time without any official reason for it. Even though I personally would not advocate for 8 and 17 to be retired and think it would downright silly for the Mets to retire 24 in honor of a player who only played with the team during the twilight of his career, the team is better off firmly clarifying the state of those numbers one way or the other.

In the end, I do think that the upcoming Koosman ceremony does likely portend additional numbers being retired, so those of us in the exclusivity camp will likely just have to accept that. Personally, I comfort myself with these two bits of wisdom: 1) this doesn’t really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things, and 2) even if I don’t personally think they should become all that much more inclusive in retiring numbers, the fact that they are indeed demonstrating more of a commitment towards celebrating their history is broadly a good thing and will hopefully result in a greater cultivation of the Mets’ unique identity as a franchise.

AM: At least we can end on this happy moment of agreement. We’d love to hear the community’s thoughts on this, so cast a vote in the poll and let us know what you think in the comments!

Poll

Should the Mets be more inclusive for number retirement?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    Yes - more number retirements, please!
    (78 votes)
  • 60%
    No - keep it a small and exclusive group.
    (119 votes)
197 votes total Vote Now