An MMO Fan Shot by Marc Epstein (Mystere2417)
Recent rumors of the Mets interest in Andrew Miller got me thinking about a more famous uniform number 24, Willie Mays, my favorite baseball player despite having only seen him play as a boy in the twilight of his career. I read Willie’s biography, studied his life and career, and became partial to rooting for power-speed players because he is the standard by which all have since, and will be, measured.
There is no questioning the credentials of the Say Hey Kid so it’s not necessary to detail the statistics behind his legendary career. He is, simply put, arguably the best all-around baseball player of all time. I’ll just mention one number that stands out in a sea of overwhelming numbers. Willie is #5 all time in career WAR with 156.4, which is “aMaysing” in its own right, but takes on cult status when you consider the two position players ahead of him, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, were helped by their pitching and steroid use respectively, and the other two above him are pitchers.
Not to take anything away from the Bambino, but when you factor in Willie’s daring speed, his dynamic defense, and the fact that he missed most of his Age 21 season and all of his Age 22 season due to military service after establishing himself as a rookie at Age 20, his status as the best position player of all time becomes even more arguable. Whether you agree with that or not, there’s no question Willie did it all on the diamond.
The arguments against the Mets retiring Willie’s number are two-fold: 1) He played for the Mets in his final two seasons when he was completely in decline, his great years long behind him; and 2) His number is already appropriately retired by the Giants, the organization in which he contributed his All-Star production. In other words, the prevailing wisdom is that he is not deserving of the honor of having his number retired by the Mets.
While these arguments are understandable in a literal and limited sense, they fail to take into account other factors that warrant consideration and favor his number being retired by the Mets. Please keep an open mind and consider the following:
Willie and New York – Willie not only transcended organizations, he also transcended cities during his illustrious baseball career. His professional playing days began and ended in New York, the stories of him playing stickball with kids in the streets of New York are legendary, and his greatness belongs to New York.
Yet there is no homage to Mays in New York beyond the shrinking number of people who remember just how much he owned baseball in the city and captured the imagination of fans, young and old, in this town. The fact that there is no major and lasting tribute to Willie in New York is unacceptable and is strong argument in favor of the Mets retiring his number, or dare I say erecting a statue in his honor at Citi Field. Let’s do both!
Blue and Orange – The two colors Mets fans bleed are blue and orange. They stem from the combination of Dodgers blue and Giants orange. Fred Wilpon has assured a permanent homage to Dodger blue in the form of the reincarnation of Ebbets Field, also known as Citi Field. And if that’s not enough Dodger blue for you, just walk into the Jackie Robinson Rotunda.
Every MLB team appropriately retired Jackie’s number for breaking the color barrier, but not every team built a lobby in his honor. That’s because Jackie played in New York. The Dodgers are literally all around you in the Mets’ home ballpark. Where, you may ask, are the Giants?
There’s little mention of New York Giants history in general or their stadium, the Polo Grounds, despite it being the actual home ballpark of the New York Mets for the first two years of their existence. The New York Giants should be more prominently represented in Mets history, and there’s no better way to do that than in the form of No. 24 prominently displayed in the pantheon of retired numbers.
The Precedent of Casey Stengel – Although the Mets have retired very few numbers, the precedent of Casey Stengel looms large in justifying the decision for the Mets to honor Mays in this way. On the surface, the two have little in common beyond their associations with MLB. But Casey, like Willie, made his mark for another NY team as well, in Casey’s case it was the Yankees, who retired his number just like the Giants retired Willie’s number for similar reasons.
The fact that one was a manger and one was a player is irrelevant. But Casey’s “stats” for the Yankees didn’t stop the Mets from retiring Casey’s number despite the losing seasons he presided over in the infancy of our fledgling franchise. That’s because of what he meant to the Mets and to the city when he ushered New York back into National League baseball in the formative years of the Mets. His contribution exceeded his Mets results, as they also do for Mays.
Payton’s Promise Should Be Kept – Joan Payson, the beloved first owner of the NY Mets, was a partial owner of the New York Giants. She adored Willie, and was responsible for bringing him back to finish his career in the Big Apple to see to it that he was treated with the respect he deserved until his retirement and beyond. To honor Mays, Joan wanted to ensure that #24 would never be issued to a Mets player ever again.
Because the number was never officially retired, it was accidentally issued to Kelvin Torve in 1990 who quickly relinquished it. The only other player to wear 24 since Mays retired was Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson both as a player in 1999 and 2000 and as a coach in 2007. In order to keep Payson’s promise, the Mets should codify this unofficial policy.
Willie is 87 years old now and permanently honoring him in the city he is most associated with is long overdue. Mets fans criticize ownership for not honoring their past. Willie is part of their past and embodies one of their “parent” organizations, the city of New York, and the greatness of the game. He should be appropriately honored while he is still here to see it and enjoy it. It’s time to Say Hey for Willie.
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This Fan Shot was written and contributed by MMO community member and die-hard Mets fan Marc Epstein (Mystere2417). Have something you want to say about the Mets? Send your article to GetMetsmerized@aol.com or use this Contact Form. Or ask us about becoming a regular contributor.