With the Mets honoring the franchise's 1986 world champions this weekend, Jay Jaffe picks five players from that team who are worthy of number retirement.
On Thursday night, the Red Sox retired Wade Boggs's No. 26 as part of a 30th anniversary celebration of their 1986 American League champion team. That squad, of course, came within one strike of winning the World Series—their first since 1918—before the National League-champion Mets rallied in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6, aided by Bill Buckner's infamous error, and then took Game 7 as well. Boston’s three championships in this millennium and the 20 years of distance from Boggs's 1996 World Series win with the Yankees appear to have created enough of a buffer for the Sox to pay tribute to the Hall of Fame third baseman, who won five batting titles in his first seven seasons with the club.
Oddly enough, the Mets haven't retired the number of any player associated with that championship, despite no shortage of candidates. In fact, they've retired the number of just one player in franchise history: Tom Seaver, the superstar from their 1969 championship team, had his No. 41 retired in 1988. That team's manager, the late Gil Hodges, had his No. 14 retired in 1973, the year following his death from a heart attack at age 47. Other than original Mets manager Casey Stengel (37) and the league-wide retirement of Jackie Robinson's 42, the Mets have yet to retire any other numbers, though Mike Piazza's No. 31 will be retired on July 30 in celebration of his induction into the Hall of Fame.
Piazza didn't win a championship with the Mets, just a pennant, which is why the team's failure to honor anyone from that 1986 team stands out. With the Mets paying tribute to that team this weekend, what follows here is a look at five candidates from that championship team who could be honored in such fashion.
Gary Carter, No. 8
That the late catcher of the 1986 team hasn't already been honored in this fashion, even posthumously, is a puzzle, for Carter represents the intersecting portion of the Venn diagram that would seem most likely to produce a retired number: He won a championship with the team, and he's in the Hall of Fame. Add in his premature death in 2012, at age 57 due to a brain tumor, and this one would seem to be even more obvious.
That said, Carter was a much better player with the Expos, who drafted and developed him; six of his 10 All-Star appearances, all three of his Gold Gloves and 220 of his 324 homers came with his original team, whose cap he wears on his plaque in Cooperstown (despite his wishes). In terms of Wins Above Replacement, it's a landslide for the Expos, 55.6 to 11.3, and in fact, Carter really only had two truly impressive seasons from among his five in New York: a 32-homer, 6.9 WAR campaign in 1985 and then a 24-homer, 3.5 WAR season in '86. He did come up big in the World Series, with three RBIs apiece in the Mets' Games 3 and 4 wins (the latter via two homers) and the two-out 10th-inning single off Calvin Schiraldi that started their fateful Game 6 rally.
After 1986, Carter was fully into his decline phase, with his heavy workload from his 20s taking full effect by his mid-30s; he was worth just 0.1 WAR in '88, when the 100-win Mets won the NL East but were upset by the Dodgers in the NLCS. Still, it's telling that no Met has worn his number since Desi Relaford in 2001—if it's out of circulation, why not pay tribute? Clearly a whole lot of folks want to see it.
Keith Hernandez, No. 17
Like Carter, Hernandez came to the Mets in mid-career—traded from the Cardinals, who drafted and developed him—in mid-1983, in part because St. Louis manager/general manager Whitey Herzog suspected he was using cocaine. Though he was no choirboy in New York, Hernandez cleaned up his act and emerged as a clubhouse leader and team captain in his 6 1/2 seasons with the Mets (through 1989), winning five Gold Gloves, making three All-Star teams, topping a .300 batting average in 1984, '85 and '86 and finishing second in the NL MVP voting in the first of those seasons, a 6.3 WAR campaign in which he hit .311/.409/.449. Although he played in St. Louis longer and won a batting title and co-MVP honors there, Hernandez was every bit as effective in New York, averaging 4.0 WAR per year with his new team (including his partial 1983) compared to 4.1 with his old one.
Aided by his guest appearances on Seinfeld in 1992 and '98—not to mention his role as a pitchman for Just For Men hair coloring product, maintaining his famous moustache—Hernandez's stature has continued to grow since his playing days. He has been part of the Mets' broadcast crew since 2003 and a staple of their SNY coverage since '06, joining play-by-play man Gary Cohen and analyst/former teammate Ron Darling in perhaps the game's most successful three-man booth. Given his longstanding connection to the team, this one seems obvious, though perhaps it is an honor that won't happen until the now-62-year-old hangs up his microphone.
Dwight Gooden, No. 16
Gooden was the ultimate pitching phenom, winning NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1984 as a 19-year-old by going 17–9 with a 2.60 ERA, a league-best 276 strikeouts and 5.5 WAR. In 1985, he authored a season for the ages: 24–4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts, good for the pitching Triple Crown and the NL Cy Young. His 12.1 WAR from that season is tied with Steve Carlton's 1972 and Pete Alexander's 1920 as the best since the start of the live-ball era. He couldn't live up to those numbers in 1986—nobody could—but he was brilliant in the NLCS against the Astros, with a 10-inning, one-run complete-game win in Game 5 following a hard-luck 1–0 loss in Game 1, though he was roughed up in his two World Series starts, both Mets losses.
Cocaine problems, beginning with a positive test during spring training in 1987, turned the rest of Gooden's career into a bumpy ride, but he did make one more All-Star team and receive Cy Young votes in two seasons during the remainder of his time with the Mets. Though he's second only to Seaver on the franchise wins list with 157, things ended badly as he tested positive again in 1994 and was suspended for all of '95. He found redemption with the Yankees in 1996, pitching a no-hitter for a team that would win the World Series, and he bounced around the majors until being released in the spring of 2001, finishing his career with 194 wins. Further drug and legal problems continued into his retirement years, including a seven-month prison stint in 2006, but he's been clean since '11 and appears to have put his life back together.
Ultimately, though Gooden is one of the biggest stars from the championship team, his past behavior and the fear that he might relapse may rule him out from consideration for such a high-profile honor.
Darryl Strawberry, No. 18
The No. 1 pick of the 1980 draft, Strawberry was the big bat in the Mets' lineup for eight seasons (1983–90), bashing 252 homers, winning NL Rookie of the Year honors and making seven All-Star teams during his stay. The 1986 season wasn't his best, but his 27 homers and 28 steals both led the team, and while he hit just .217/.315/.457 in the postseason, his three home runs were all key ones. He made the 30–30 club in 1987, and his 39 homers for the '88 team—just the fourth Mets squad to make the postseason—led the NL.
Strawberry's time in New York was hardly smooth sailing. His first wife, Lisa, filed for legal separation in 1987, accusing him of breaking her nose. He missed workouts and famously fought with Hernandez on team photo day in 1989. Manager Davey Johnson was just one among many who felt that Strawberry lacked the drive to reach even greater heights in his career. Underlying all of this were his ongoing struggles with alcohol and drugs: He entered alcohol rehab in January 1990 after an altercation with Lisa involving a handgun, and his downward spiral of cocaine, legal and health problems overshadowed the rest of his major league career, despite flickers of redemption with strong showings with the championship-winning 1996 and '98 Yankees.
Strawberry appears to have fond peace in recent years; by his own admission, he's looked to the example of Carter, his diametric opposite during his stormy New York tenure, as a role model to emulate. But like Gooden, his past behavior and the fear that he could come back to embarrass the organization might rule him out.
Davey Johnson, No. 5
Johnson never played for the Mets, but in his seven seasons of managing them (1984–90), he set franchise records with 595 wins and a .588 winning percentage, with 90 wins or more in each of his first five seasons. He led them to a franchise-record 108 wins in 1986 and was at the helm for one of the other two of the franchise's three 100-win seasons, in '88. His overall .562 winning percentage and four additional trips to the postseason with three other teams gives him an argument for a plaque in Cooperstown some day.
The biggest obstacle to honoring Johnson, beyond the perception that his Mets teams should have made more than two postseason appearances or at least a second trip to the World Series, is that team captain David Wright is currently wearing his number and building his own case for such an honor. Perhaps the Mets would someday consider retiring the number on behalf of both—the Yankees did so for Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, and the Cubs for Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux – but with Wright under contract through 2020, such a decision is at least half a decade away.
As this run-through shows, it’s more difficult than it may first appear when it comes to choosing whom, if anyone, to honor from that championship team in such a fashion. If nothing else, none of the five had a long run with the team. To these eyes, choosing Carter and/or Hernandez makes particular sense, and it feels like a missed opportunity to fete them amid such a celebration, with so many of their teammates gathered.