Mets retire Hernandez's No. 17; Alonso pays homage with homer

July 10th, 2022

NEW YORK -- The broadcast booth, Keith Hernandez says, changed his perspective on Major League Baseball games. For years as a player, the thought of being on the field looking up at tens of thousands of fans seemed normal. Ordinary, even, despite the most extraordinary of circumstances -- pennants won, World Series played and a legacy secured.

As a broadcaster, Hernandez became as beloved to a second generation of fans as he had been as a player to the first. But somewhere along the way, he lost that feeling of being enveloped by the fans; the booth was too isolated, too restrictive for that sort of thing. On Saturday, Hernandez rediscovered the sensation, as a sold-out crowd showed up to Citi Field to watch the Mets make him the fourth player and sixth individual to have his number retired by the team.

“I am absolutely humbled and proud that my number will be up in the rafters for eternity along with Casey, Gil, Tom, Mike and Jerry,” Hernandez said. “Sixty years of New York Mets.”

The names to which Hernandez referred -- Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges, Tom Seaver, Mike Piazza and Jerry Koosman -- have long been Mets royalty. Hernandez took a more circuitous route to the left-field overhang, winning an MVP and a World Series in St. Louis and initially bristling at the 1983 trade that brought him to New York. But Hernandez quickly warmed to the city and its fans, becoming one of the most important leaders of the 1986 team and, later, a broadcasting icon.

Hernandez had already entered both the Mets and Cardinals Halls of Fame, given his contributions to both franchises. A career .296 hitter, Hernandez accumulated a record 11 Gold Gloves as a first baseman; he’s the only all-time Gold Glove leader at his position not enshrined in Cooperstown.

“It’s just a very special thing,” Hernandez said, reading from a speech that he had written that morning. “New York has been great to me. The Mets have been great to me.”

Many of the day's 43,336 fans showed up hours before game time wearing No. 17 jerseys, Hadji t-shirts and fake mustaches, seeking both to beat the traffic and to grab a Hernandez bobblehead. The mood was festive. Current Mets first baseman Pete Alonso shaved his scruff but let his mustache remain as a way to honor a player he admires. Then Alonso blasted a solo homer in the Mets' 5-4 walk-off 10th-inning win over the Marlins to pay Hernandez even greater homage, saying afterward that the legendary first baseman "got a pretty good kick out of it."

Mets owner Steve Cohen and manager Buck Showalter presented Hernandez with a mosaic constructed from more than 6,000 of his baseball cards, as several of Hernandez’s former teammates -- Mookie Wilson, Tim Teufel, Ed Lynch and Ron Darling -- looked on. In the outfield, members of the grounds crew had mowed No. 17 into the grass.

“It’s the biggest honor that can be bestowed upon a player by an organization,” Hernandez told them all. “And I’ve been here almost 40 years.”

Hernandez followed his speech with a ceremonial first pitch from his old position, delivering it to his brother, Gary, who wore the mitt Hernandez had used during the 1986 postseason. Marlins manager Don Mattingly then emerged from his dugout to pose for pictures with Hernandez, a 1980s contemporary with whom he has often been compared. And of course Hernandez eventually made his way up to the broadcast booth for an inning of banter with Darling and Gary Cohen, with whom he will forever be linked.

Hernandez will now be connected to Seaver, Piazza and Koosman as well, plus a few as-yet unnamed Mets. Under Cohen and Mets director of alumni relations Jay Horwitz, the club has made honoring its past a more regular thing, with some long-overdue number retirements representing a significant part of that. In addition to Koosman last summer and Hernandez on Saturday, David Wright is all but certain to have his No. 5 retired in future years, while Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry remain distinct possibilities.

In time, they may all have their days. Saturday was Hernandez’s day.

“And if there’s justice in this world,” longtime Mets broadcaster Howie Rose said in concluding the ceremony for Hernandez, “the next stop is Cooperstown.”