When Keith Hernandez was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the New York Mets during the 1983 season, the No. 37 that he had worn on the back of his uniform for nearly eight seasons wasn’t available for the taking. The Mets had retired that number, which belonged to their first-ever manager, Casey Stengel, who donned it from 1962-1965.
So the search for a new uniform number began.
He always liked odd numbers, ideally in the teens, and it had to contain the No. 7 for his boyhood idol growing up in northern California, Mickey Mantle.
No. 17 it was — playing for his favorite player’s crosstown rival, unsure if he would even stick it out with an organization that had been stuck in the doldrums of the National League for the better part of the previous decade.
Thirty-nine years later, as the franchise begins to celebrate its 60th anniversary, it’s Hernandez’s uniform number that will be enshrined atop Citi Field where no other Mets player will ever wear it again.
“For me, just a little old blue-collar kid from California… 17 miles south of Candlestick Park with a dream to be a ballplayer,” Hernandez reminisced on Wednesday. “To attain that and have all the success that I had… this is unbelievable. I’m just ecstatic and so proud and so thankful.
“I can’t think of the right term. I don’t think bewilderment is the right term, but I feel like I’m lost in space that it’s happened to me, an honor like this. Something I never dreamed of.”
The honor of Hernandez’s number retirement is one that’s long overdue. After all, he was the spark that turned the organization around as one of baseball’s greatest (especially defensively) first basemen.
The franchise’s first-ever captain was the on-field general — or as Mookie Wilson once told me “the Big Kahuna” — that changed the perception of the Mets, ultimately leading them their second-ever World Series title in 1986.
He ranks second in franchise history with a .297 batting average. He posted an on-base percentage of .387, including a .413 mark in 1986 that current team president Sandy Alderson said was “music to his ears.” He won six of his 11 Gold Glove Awards in Queens.
Yet, he had to wait 33 years after playing his final game as a Met to receive such an honor.
“It’s not something that I thought about and it wasn’t something that was going to ruin my day if it didn’t happen,” Hernandez admitted.
Under the previous ownership regime, highlighting the history of the Mets was never a priority.
Only three numbers — Stengel, 1969 World Series-winning manager Gil Hodges, and legendary pitcher Tom Seaver — had been retired alongside Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 league-wide honor in 1997. After leaving Shea Stadium, Citi Field was fashioned to highlight the features of Ebbets Field — the former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers — with the main rotunda having been dedicated to Robinson rather than a Mets legend.
Old Timer’s Day honoring past players disappeared, alumni sightings were few and far between.
It began to change at the end of the Wilpon era and is turning a complete 180 under new owner Steve Cohen.
Mike Piazza’s No. 31 was retired after he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016. Jerry Koosman’s No. 36 joined the prestigious ranks last year. Seaver’s statue will be unveiled this year at Citi Field, too.
“Mike’s number was the first number that had been retired in a long time so maybe the worm was turning a little bit,” Hernandez admitted. “That’s when things were turning in the right direction.
“It feels like all the dominos are falling into place and for me to feel like one of those pieces, it means the world to me.”
Hernandez also let slip that the Mets will be bringing back Old Timer’s Day in 2022 where as many as 50 alumni will don the blue and orange of the Mets and take the diamond at Citi Field.
That’s probably the only time fans will see a No. 17 playing for the home team in Queens ever again — and it continues to solidify the efforts of Cohen to plant the seeds of traditional pride within one of the more loyal fan bases in sports.
“It’s their 60th year in baseball. That’s significant. There is history and there should be tradition. I think that this is all coming together,” Hernandez said. “I think it’s very important that the fans have a sense of the history of their team. It’s generational. My dad took me to my first game and it goes on and on. You’re influenced by your parents… It’s that kind of influence and camaraderie that brings a family together.”