Mets of yesteryear suddenly feel they’re ‘part of something’
By Gary Phillips
When Jay Hook threw out a ceremonial first pitch to Mike Piazza on Saturday night, it showed off the New York Mets’ newfound ability to celebrate the entirety of the franchise’s 60-year history in one big event.
The pitch, which came before the team’s 3-0 win over the Colorado Rockies, was thrown by the first pitcher to win a game in Mets history, and it was received by a catcher who is wearing a Mets cap on his Hall of Fame plaque. It put a tidy bow on the club’s first Old-Timers’ Day since 1994.
Saturday’s event welcomed Mets greats from every generation to Citi Field and featured a three-inning exhibition with fan favorites like Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernández, Darryl Strawberry, Pedro Martínez and Ed Kranepool. The packed crowd of Mets fans, old and young, got an extra treat when they witnessed the surprise retirement of Willie Mays’ No. 24 jersey.
The day served to spotlight just how much history the Mets have to cherish — and how rarely they did so before Steven Cohen took over as the team’s owner.
“I’m happy for the organization. I’m happy for Steve and his wife, Alex,” Strawberry said. “I’m happy with what they’re doing here, really bringing a different atmosphere into Queens. I think it’s important when you play in New York City, your team be marketed the right way. I think they’re doing that by having an event like this.”
A number of Mets alums shared Strawberry’s sentiments Saturday. Bobby Valentine, the team’s manager from 1996 to 2002, called the day “overdue,” while Ron Swoboda, an outfielder from the 1969 Miracle Mets, called it “a missing piece.”
“If your team doesn’t have a connection to its legacy, what are ya?” Swoboda asked. “This new ownership, with Steve Cohen, has embraced this again, and I’m tickled to death because I’m a fan of all these guys.”
While most ex-Mets avoided direct implications, the subtext behind much of the discussion of Old-Timers’ Day was a comparison to how things were handled under the Wilpon family, the team’s previous majority owners, who rarely honored the team’s former players.
“It’s great to see because he’s done what the fans want,” Gooden said of Cohen. “He gets it, and that’s what it’s all about. You feel like you’re a part of something.”
Gooden said he didn’t want to take shots at anybody. But “now, ownership is more invested in everything.”
Not everyone was so polite. Ray Knight, the third baseman who scored the winning run in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, was blunt in his assessment. “I love the New York Mets,” he said. “I don’t like the Wilpons.”
Knight, who was named MVP of that World Series, recalled his departure from the Mets and how it left a bitter taste in his mouth. He remembered being called into general manager Frank Cashen’s office before that year’s championship parade. Cashen offered him only a $5,000 raise, which Knight did not think reflected his postseason heroics or his strong regular season.
Knight wound up in Baltimore with a $600,000 deal in 1987 and finished his career in Detroit in 1988.
On Saturday, Knight admitted that the way his Mets career ended still hurts him. But he also sees an entirely new operation in Flushing, and he eagerly accepted his Old-Timers’ Day invite.
“This organization is totally different than it was when I was here,” Knight said. “There’s new kids in town, no doubt about it. It starts at the top. It always starts at the top.”
While most of the old-timers talked about a newfound appreciation for the past, Hook came to the Wilpons’ defense after speaking to Fred Wilpon, the family’s patriarch, before the event.
“They cared about that sort of thing, too,” Hook said when asked if Cohen’s Mets pay more attention to the past than the previous ownership. “It’s just, who makes the suggestion that you have something like this, you know? I think Cohen did because he had people complaining or something.”
Hook, 85, attended Citi Field for the first time Saturday.
There is no question that Cohen has gone all in on nostalgia — in addition to spending — since completing his purchase of the team. The Mets have recently held days hailing Hernández and Gil Hodges and honored Jay Horowitz, the team’s longtime public relations director. The team also held an elaborate ceremony to unveil Tom Seaver’s statue at Citi Field in April, though that statue was commissioned under the Wilpons.
Cohen has even engaged in smaller acts of fan service, like bringing back the black jerseys the team had introduced in 1998.
“They’re reaching to their fans and saying we have a lot of history here,” Strawberry said. “You have to embrace that, and I think that’s what they’re doing.”
Saturday was always going to accomplish that, but the Mets took an extra step when they retired Mays’ jersey number. The decision, which was not announced before the game, came with a tribute video and a message from the Hall of Famer, who could not attend after undergoing a hip replacement a few months ago. Mays’ son, Michael, filled in and said the move was a “long time coming.”
A superstar outfielder for the Giants, both in New York and San Francisco, Mays only spent the 1972 and 1973 seasons with the Mets before retiring. But Joan Payson, a Mets co-founder, wanted Mays to finish his career in New York City, and she promised the Mets would retire his number. She died in 1975, leaving her promise unfulfilled until now.
“There has been a 50-year gap, if you will, between a promise made and a promise kept,” said Sandy Alderson, the president of the Mets. “And we felt that on this occasion today, in light of all the players that we had here, all the generations, that this was the time to keep that promise.”
Added Michael Mays: “Her promises to him were important, so for it to come to fruition like this, something undone is done.”
Mets fans and the gathered old-timers could say the same about the franchise leaning in on recognizing its past.