Jeff McKnight, a two-time Mets utility infielder made semi-famous on these pages for having worn five different uniform numbers for the Mets, passed away Sunday at his home in Bee Branch, Ark., newspapers reported.
McKnight, who’d just turned 52, had been battling leukemia for 10 years, his family said.
I first wrote about Jeff McKnight some 16 years ago, after inadvertently uncovering details revealing he was the first and still the only of the nearly 1,000 players in team history to appear in five different uniform numbers for the Mets.
While on the one hand his feat is an odd curiosity, five uni numbers is also something else entirely. It’s not the kind of record that a player who is secure in his big-league status can possibly generate, and at the same time, it’s a testament to McKnight’s persistence and versatility, finding a way to be needed even as his teammates were needier.
As detailed on my article featured here, Jeff McKnight had a long road into Mets history, logging six seasons and nearly 1,800 at-bats as a minor leaguer before getting a freak shot at the majors in 1989 when three Met infielders went down with injuries at once. His stint — then wearing No. 15 — ended as soon as the first one returned and he didn’t even get an invite back in September, becoming a minor-league free agent destined for two seasons with the Baltimore Orioles organization.
He resurfaced with the Mets three years later, making the 1992 club as a reserve out of spring training wearing No. 5, then spending nearly all of 1993 with the Mets, this time wearing No. 7, since the Mets had subsequently reserved No. 5 for rookie comer Jeromy Burnitz. However, his run as No. 7 came to an end in May when manager Jeff Toborg and his staff were fired — it was the Worst Team Money Could Buy, after all — and McKnight switched to No. 17 when new coach Bobby Wine claimed No. 7.
In 1994, he made the club again but this time wearing No. 18, as superstar pitcher Bret Saberhagen demanded, and received, 17. Whether McKnight was ever even compensated for his selflessness wasn’t even remarked upon; his was the lot of the 25th man, and he took what was offered.
McKnight, then at the advanced age of 31 and battling a nagging injury, was sent to minors to rehab but recalled again shortly before the player deadline to strike in August, a move engineered not for McKnight’s benefit but to keep young players demoted to take his place in AAA busy in the event of a strike. The strike would shortly end that season, and McKnight’s career along with it.
Finding out Jeff passed away this evening was something of a shock and a disappointment; I meant to — and should have — reached out to him in person a long time ago, but the trail of my Internet sleuthing invariably went cold. I think I knew he was in Arkansas; and that he worked at a TV station.
I figured I’d always have a chance. I had no idea he was sick. I sometimes wondered if he even knew this site existed. I always hoped that if he’d read my lighthearted tribute he’d understand the respect behind it.
Rest in peace, Jeff.