No. 8 weighs heavily everywhere this spring
Two uniform numbers at Mets camp carry special importance
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- These eyes always have had a thing for No. 7. Beginning with their first television glimpse of Mickey Mantle in 1955, they noticed it, followed it and considered it the most important integer out there. Whether it was Bobby Wine, Pete Maravich, Rick Burleson, John Elway, Atlee Hammaker, Phil Esposito, Rick Monday, Dean Deminger or Chuck Tanner wearing No. 7, I took note, all because of Mantle.
So when Bob Geren, the Mets' new bench coach, walked on to a training camp field here Wednesday, his number caught my eyes. At first, I squinted and asked, "Who's that?" Then Geren turned, and his face -- he looks a little like Liberace and a lot like a Yankees catcher I knew years ago -- answered the question.
Next questions (one rhetorical): What's the bench coach doing with Jose Reyes' number? How soon do they forget? And how soon do they want us to forget?
Reyes spent nine seasons making No. 7 prominent in the world of the Mets. He essentially took the number off the backs of Ed Kranepool, Hubie Brooks, Kevin Mitchell, Todd Pratt and 15 others and made it his own. And now the bench coach wears it. Hmmm.
Likewise, Carlos Beltran barely had made it to San Francisco last summer when his No. 15 was assigned to Val Pascucci. And residual resentment remains among fans because Keith Hernandez's No. 17 was assigned to the likes of Santuro Komiyama, Jason Anderson, Jose Lima and the unremarkable Mr. Koo.
At least two Mets numbers, not officially retired, have been removed from circulation -- 24 and 8. Kelvin Torve, also unremarkable, wore No. 24 for a week and a half in 1990, though no one is quite sure why. Joan Payson, the Mets' first owner, promised Willie Mays no one would wear 24 after he took it off for the last time as a mostly no-show coach in 1979.
And then, with the belated and half-hearted approval of Mays, Rickey Henderson wore 24 as a player and an occasional coach as recently as 2007.
Three players and three coaches have worn the No. 8 since the last time it sparkled on the back of Gary Carter. And no one has worn it for nine years. Matt Galante, who served as one of Bobby Valentine's coaches in 2002, is the most recent Mets 8. He wore No. 4 the following two years after the late Hall of Fame catcher was elected to Cooperstown.
And now what? Charlie Samuels, the discarded clubhouse and equipment manager, had pulled No. 8 out of circulation, though not ordered to do so. He had a place in his heart for Kid and recognized the impact of HOF status. With Samuels gone, the club still hasn't decided what to do with Carter's 8. It's fate has been discussed, and it hasn't been assigned this spring either.
What to make of this? Carter played five years with the Mets, hardly an extended tenure. Keith Hernandez played 6 1/2, and when players from the 1980s are asked, they identify Hernandez as the more impactful of the two. Dwight Gooden, a homegrown talent, was a Met from 1984 through June 1994. His No. 16 went to Derek Bell, Hideo Nomo and Doug Mientkiewicz, which bothered some people, and to Paul Lo Duca and Angel Pagan, which bothered fewer. Non-roster catcher Rob Johnson wears 16 in the current camp.
Carter, Hernandez, Gooden and Darryl Strawberry are in the Mets Hall of Fame. But only one number -- Tom Seaver's 41 -- has been retired for a Mets player. Some voices in the public now clamor for 8 to be retired for Carter. Other voices support the retirement of 17.
My sense of it is that the retirement of No. 8 for Carter is at least borderline appropriate, and not only because he has passed. But other than Seaver, no player has had greater impact on the good fortunes of the Mets than Hernandez. Carter and Mike Piazza must be considered. But first No. 17 must be retired.
No. 8, Part 2
Wally Backman was No. 28 when he made his big league debut with the Mets in 1980, and he wore No. 86 as a one-day coach in September. But he wore No. 6 when he was a regular for the successful Mets teams of the '80s. And he has been No. 6 as a manager in the Minor Leagues. Not this year, though. Backman will manage the club's Triple-A Buffalo affiliate.
And he will wear No. 8 as a salute to his fallen teammate.
"Kid was special," Backman said the other day. "Honoring him by wearing his number is the least I can do. Everyone had a opinion about Kid. He was different from most of us. Like Straw said" "Now we realize we'd been better off if we lived our lives like Kid did.' Put everything else aside. I can tell you I never heard Gary Carter say a bad word about another human being. Never."
No. 8, Part 3
I rented Carter's condo here one spring. It was the one he used when he managed the Minor League affiliates in this city and didn't want to make the 45-minute round trip -- he lived in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. -- twice in eight hours.
A realtor took me to the condo the day I moved in. As she searched for the key and the security code, I told her I already had to the code -- not that Carter had shared it with me. When she said it was five digits, I guess four 8s and another number, close to 8.
It was 8-8-7-8-8.
No. 8, Part 4
The Mets acquired Carter from the Expos on Dec. 10, 1984. Once the exchange was in place, only a few other matters needed attention. And at one point, then Mets general manager Frank Cashen asked whether he had other concerns. Carter's response was "I gotta have 8."
Confused, Cashen asked, "Eight what?"
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.