I’ve mentioned this in passing a few times before but it bears repeating: We are living in a Golden Age for unique uni number distributions in Metland.
Not since 1979-80 — when six first-time jerseys were issued — have first-time numbers arrived with the same velocity as they have in the five years since Kevin Kierst was named to succeed Charlie Samuels as the Mets’ equipment manager in 2010. And when you consider additional factors — Kirest’s willingness to reissue rare jerseys; Samuels’ final year in 2009; and the relatively swift corrections we’d see with the 1979 and 1980 issues — we are experiencing more freshness in the number game than any time since the club’s first 34 jerseys were issued in 1962. For a team going on its 53rd birthday, and approaching its 1,000th player, that’s remarkable.
Let’s take a closer look. When Dario Alvarez took the mound for his Major League debut Sept. 3, he also became the first player in team history to wear No. 68 in a game. Two of his teammates — Wilfredo Tovar and Germen Gonzalez, respectively — trotted out the 70 and 71 jerseys for the first time a year prior. In 2012, it was Josh Edgin in 66; in 2011, Chris Schwinden (63) and DJ Carrasco (77) broke the cherries on their numbers.
Joining those six are a second group of ballplayers who while not first-time wearers of their numbers, turned up nonetheless in infrequently issued ones: Jack Egbert and Dana Eveland (who each wore 61); Omar Quintanilla, who this year became only the third player in team history to be issued No. 0;Robert Carson, the third 73 in team history (and the first not have equity in the number); and Jenrry Mejia, just the fourth 58.
Because we’ve seen players like Mejia, Edgin, Gonzalez and Carson carry their weird numbers over multiple seasons, I’d argue this era is far more significant than the aforementioned shenanigans of 1979 and 80. The unusual activity then was confined mainly to September of 1980 when minor league callups Luis Rosado, Ed Lynch, and Hubie Brooks got first-time issues of 57, 58 and 62 respectively, while fellow callup Mario Ramirez got the second-ever 61. (Pitcher Dyar Miller, who had arrived in July of 1980, also got 56 for the first time).
Hard to say exactly what happened that year but it’s a good guess these were leftover Spring jerseys. What’s telling is that in future appearances, these issues were all withdrawn. Brooks took 39 then 7; Lynch yo-yo-ed between levels for the next few years and collected three more numbers. Rosado and Ramirez never made it back.
The 1979 first-time issues were for Neil Allen — the team’s first 46 — and Jesse Orosco, whose 1979 arrival coincided with sudden budget-driven veteran releases near the end of Spring Training resulting in the team’s first-ever No. 61. Jesse, of course, would be outfitted in the more traditional 47 the next time he turned up.
While its easy to point to Kierst’s appointment as a line between the “tradtional” Met number range and what we have to start considering to be the New Normal, I’ll point to an issue in the final hours of Samuels’ 27-year reign — Elmer Dessens‘ No. 64 — as the Big Bang of the of the new era. The 60s would soon be in full swing; and the 70s dawning.
Why? That too is a good question. The effects of having taken a few numbers out of the rotation — 31 hasn’t been issued since Mike Piazza left town in 2005 and Kierst has quietly mothballed 17 — would explain some. And coaches taking numbers associated with their playing careers — and not the orderly 51-55 they wore in days of yore — matters too. But I suspect the main reason is the emergence of a new numerical designation for relief pitchers, an evolution that follows (by a few decades at least) the specialization of the role itself.
This makes sense. In the 1960s and 70s during which the Mets forged their numerical identity, relief pitchers were primarily starters with sore arms and/or less stuff than their teammates. And at least some starters — Roger Craig for one — were the club’s best relief pitchers too. Distinguishing between the roles back then, never mind the numbers, was barely necessary. Today, the Mets appear to be acknowledging that relief pitchers are a different breed deserving of distinct numerical territory, one they’ve roughly carved out beyond the 50s where the coaches used to be, and away from the 30s and 40s that appear to more exclusive to the starting staff.