Keith's No. 17 retirement 'means the world'

Ceremony planned for July 9 at Citi Field

January 12th, 2022

NEW YORK -- Late in the 2019 season, at a press conference announcing plans to retire Jerry Koosman’s uniform number, then-owner Jeff Wilpon spoke about the Mets’ proposal to “catch up and do some neat things for the fans” in the arena of franchise history. For years, the Mets had absorbed criticism for not connecting deeply enough with their roots. They intended to do something about it.

Wilpon may be gone now, but new owner Steve Cohen has assumed that charge with enthusiasm. In addition to overseeing Koosman’s number retirement ceremony last summer, Cohen has moved forward with a plan to retire Keith Hernandez’s No. 17. He has also given vice president of alumni relations Jay Horwitz freedom to continue his work celebrating the team’s history, with future plans including additional number retirements and an annual Old-Timers’ Day.

“It just seems like all the pieces are coming together,” Hernandez said on a video conference call to discuss his number retirement. “It’s the 60th anniversary of the Mets, if you can believe that. We’re going to unveil Tom Seaver’s statue this year. It just seems like all the dominoes are falling into place, and for me to be one of those pieces just means the world to me.”

When Cohen spoke to Hernandez about those projects this week, he left the first-baseman-turned-broadcaster at a loss for words. Later, Hernandez said he considers it the highest honor a team can bestow upon a player, considering how few Mets have seen their numbers retired. Hernandez will become only the fourth player and the sixth individual on the list, alongside Seaver, Mike Piazza, Koosman, Gil Hodges and Casey Stengel.

“I don’t think ‘bewilderment’ is the right term, but I do feel like I’m lost in space that it happened to me, an honor like this, and something that I never dreamed of,” Hernandez said. “You dream of being on a world championship team. You dream of being a batting champion or an MVP. The thought of having a number retired, I can tell you, never crossed my mind.”

Others are likely to join in future years, from a pool that includes such franchise greats as Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and David Wright. In the past, the Mets held to an unwritten rule that they would not retire the numbers of players unless they first earned induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But when Wright played his final game in 2018 amidst increasing fan pressure for the club to embrace its history, the Mets Hall of Fame Committee -- with Wilpon’s blessing -- began mapping out ways to loosen such restrictions.

The execution of those plans began with Koosman in 2019, then continued last summer with the inductions of Jon Matlack, Ron Darling and Edgardo Alfonzo into the Mets Hall of Fame. More events are planned for this year, including the Seaver statue unveiling on Opening Day, Hernandez’s number retirement on July 9 and an Old-Timers’ Day at some point during the season. The idea is to celebrate Mets history in a broader way, from Hall of Famers like Seaver and Piazza to lesser players who had outsized impacts on the franchise.

“I just think that the timing is perfect, and I think that the fans are going to absolutely love it,” Hernandez said. “It’s just the whole change of the environment and the climate of the Mets organization in a very, very positive way.”

It’s even possible that the renewed interest in Hernandez’s career could provide additional support for his Hall of Fame candidacy. Often listed among Cooperstown’s most notable snubs, the 68-year-old Hernandez mused that he has “another 15, 16, 17, 18 years left of life.”

“Maybe,” he added, “it will happen before I kick the bucket.”