Esposito: It’s A Numbers Game

When the Mets’ Jeff McNeil reported to spring training, his new status on the club also elevated his uniform number. Having played as a rookie last year as “an offensive lineman” with 68 on his back, he is now sporting No. 6, a more relevant designation in conjunction with his standing.

But the infielder/outfielder is far from the only Met, or Yankee, to improve their numerical choice.

Perhaps this all comes under the headline of useless trivial information, but many fans endear themselves to a player’s number, buying multiple jerseys of their favorites just so they can sport those numerals to the game or wherever they go.

Baseball has a history with uniform numbers going back to 1929, when the Yankees first coordinated their lineup by placing a number on everyone’s back in sequence with their lineup, and that’s how Babe Ruth ended up with number 3, and Lou Gehrig with number 4, as they were consistently the third and fourth batter in the everyday Yankee lineup.

Keep this in mind whenever you see footage of Ruth trotting around the bases wearing his famous No. 3. Sometimes the footage is in deference to his record-setting 60 home runs in 1927. But if you see the 3, the film is from at least 1929.

The Cleveland Indians, however, were the first team to experiment with uniform numbers in 1916, by placing numbers on the players’ sleeves. Curiously, though, they abandoned the practice the following year.

McNeil is not the only Met to have his number switched. Travis d’Arnaud used to wear No. 7, but when Jose Reyes returned to the club in 2016, he graciously surrendered the number which the popular shortstop was better known as, and adopted No. 18, as he is a fan of soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.

And the team’s other backup catcher, Tomas Nido, who was optioned to Syracuse when d’Arnaud was discharged from the IL on Sunday, originally wore 77 for the club in 2017. Last year when Nido was recalled, he was “promoted” to No. 3, which of course, was famously worn by Buddy Harrelson for many years.

The team’s history is filled with number changes for various reasons.

Roger Craig was the Opening Day starter for the Mets for Game 1 in their inaugural season of 1962 wearing No. 38. He lost that first start, and soon many more. But in an effort to change his luck, he switched during the season to what is considered an unlucky number, 13.

It didn’t help. Craig finished the season 10-24, with an ERA of 4.51. Today, that many decisions and an almost respectable ERA (we said, almost) earn a starter a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract, but in those days, not so much.

With the ‘69 Mets coming to town to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of their World Championship in June, it’s worth noting that longtime first baseman Ed Kranepool didn’t always own his familiar No. 7. When he was signed literally the day after his high school graduation in ‘62, he was assigned No. 21. (Elio Chacon was the first Met to wear No. 7 in ‘62, trivia fans.) Krane wore 21 through 1964, and switched to 7 in ‘65, when he deferred 21 to future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn as the team’s new pitcher/pitching coach.

Gil Hodges was the first Met to wear 14 as a player in ‘62. But when he left the club to manage the Washington Senators in 1963, the number was mothballed until acquired by Ron Swoboda beginning in 1965. When Hodges returned in ‘68 to manage the club, Swoboda yielded the 14 and “downsized” to 4.

The ‘86 Mets also danced around the numbers.

When Rusty Staub first came to New York via a trade in 1972, he also wore 4, as his number 10 worn on his original club, the Houston Astros, was occupied by catcher Duffy Dyer. Staub, who actually missed out on all the fun of 1986, having retired after ‘85, was able to re-acquire his original 10 when Dyer left after the ‘74 season.

Ron Darling made his major league debut with the Mets in 1983, having come over to the club in a trade with the Texas Rangers for Lee Mazzilli in April of ‘82, wearing 44. But he preferred a lower number and switched to 12 in 1985, and later to 15 during the ‘89 season.

Mazzilli’s uniform number also bounced around. He came up wearing 12 in ‘76, soon switched to 16, and when he returned to the club in ‘86, essentially replacing Staub as pinch-hitter extraordinaire, he wore 13.

Jesse Orosco broke in with the Mets in 1979 wearing 61. But his worth was soon obvious and he was upgraded to 47.

Ed Lynch, who started the 1986 season as a Met and finished as a Cub, was the first Met ever to wear 59 in 1980. But over the course of his Mets career, he also wore 35 in ‘80 and into ‘81. At one point in ‘81, he also tried out 34, and by ‘82, he donned 36. At least according to the Mets’ official list of player numbers. Baseball Reference has Lynch wearing 50 and 31 as well. We’ll go with the Mets guide.

You could spend all day figuring out all of the uniform number changes. David Cone went from 44 to 16 and then 17. Kevin Elster went from 21 to 15. Jeff Kent started out with 39 and then went to 12. Bob Apodaca debuted with 56, but is better known for 34. Bobby Valentine wore 1 as a Mets player, and later no. 2 as a coach and then manager. And so on.

The Yankees have seen their fair share of uniform changes as well, even amongst their Hall of Famers.

Joe DiMaggio was a rookie in 1936 wearing 9. By the following year, he adorned his famous No. 5.

Mickey Mantle played his first game in 1951 wearing 6. It was intentional, as the club knew they had a future star in their midst, and they wanted to extend the sequence of Ruth (3), Gehrig (4), and Joe D (5). Mantle, however had a soft start to his career and was dispatched to the minors mid-July for more seasoning.

A little-known outfielder named Cliff Mapes was wearing no. 7 at the start of the ‘51 season. Mapes, who also wore No. 3 as a Yankee and was wearing it until the day Ruth’s number was retired in 1948 (how about that for a Yankee trivia answer) was traded at the end of July. So when Mantle was recalled toward the end of August, 7 was available, and on Mantle’s broad back it went.

Mapes also wore 13 as a Yankee. So his legacy features a connection to Ruth, Mantle, and Alex Rodriguez. How about that, A-Rod?

Lawrence Peter Berra caught his first game wearing 38 in 1946. He was “discounted” to 35 during the ‘47 season, and it wasn’t until 1948 did Yogi don his better-known No. 8.

Edward Charles Ford was originally assigned No. 19 in 1950. But after “pitching” for the Army in ‘51 and ‘52 during the Korean War, Whitey Ford, considered now the greatest living former Yankee, enjoyed the rest of his Hall of Fame career, commencing in 1953, wearing 16.

Other notable Yankee uniform changes include seeing Don Mattingly going on a “half-price sale.” He first wore 46 as a rookie in 1982, but by 1984, he was known for what has become retired by the Yankees, 23.

Jorge Posada might hold or come close to a record for uniform numbers as a Yankee. The rookie in 1995 wore 62, but his Yankee career includes stints in 41, 55, 22, and 20. Hike!

But a better “record” might belong to Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri. Try this bit of trivia on your friends. Over the course of his Yankee career, “Poosh-’em-up” Tony wore 6, then 5, then 23, and finally, 7. And now, all of those numbers are retired by the Yankees, but none of them on behalf of Lazzeri. Holy cannolis, bat-man!

And then there is the case of Reggie Jackson. When Reginald Martinez Jackson played with the A’s and Orioles, he was known for wearing 9. But when he signed as a free agent in New York, Graig Nettles was firmly entrenched as No. 9. So in spring training of 1977 when Reggie arrived, he buttoned up No. 20. But toward the end of spring training, the Yankees dealt for Bucky Dent. And even though he wore 30 with his previous team, the White Sox, Jackson flipped his 20 to Dent and paid homage to Hank Aaron by taking 44. So Reggie did wear 20 as a Yankee, but never officially in a regular season game, so he’ll always be a Yankee 44.

It’ll always be a numbers game, in many more ways than one.

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