Mets Retire 36 for Koosman

James Escher/Icon Sportswire

He was the other side of a lucky coin.  He was the flip side of a great LP.  He was the lefthanded complement to the right-handed headliner.  And he was an above-the-title co-star with a fellow named Tom Seaver when the Mets won their first World Championship in 1969.

He was also on the mound to toss the most important pitch at that time in the brief history of a young franchise, closing out Game 5 in the 1969 Fall Classic.

Of course, we’re talking about Jerome Martin Koosman, the Minnesota native southpaw who virtually matched Seaver inning for inning down the stretch in ’69 as the upstart Metropolitans shocked the world by taking down the big, bad Orioles from Baltimore.

Just about every Mets fan has seen the iconic photo of Koosman jumping into Jerry Grote’s arms at the conclusion of that historic moment.

And all these years later, the Mets thanked Koos with the supreme honor by retiring his number 36 on Saturday night prior to the game against Washington, the number he wore for most of his 12 years as a Met (1967-1978).

“It’s very humbling to be chosen to have your number retired,” said Koosman, now 78 and living in Wisconsin. “Evidently, someone thinks I contributed along the way, so yeah, it’s a good feeling.  I’m overjoyed.”

Yes, Koos contributed, going 140-137 as a Met – the winningest lefty in team history, 3.09 ERA, 376 games (346 starts), 109 complete games, 26 shutouts, 1799 strikeouts in 2544.2 innings, and a 1.219 WHIP.

Some of those numbers might not seem as impressive by today’s standards, but you had to be there. Koos still ranks second to Seaver in team annals in starts, complete games, innings, and shutouts (tied with Jon Matlack), and is third in strikeouts, sixth in ERA.

Already a Mets Hall of Famer since 1989 – you can visit his plaque along with the others in the Mets Museum inside the Jackie Robinson Concourse at Citi Field – Koosman went 17-9 in ’69 with a 2.28 ERA. And in the World Series, he won both of his games (2 and 5), with nine strikeouts in 17.2 innings, yielding just seven hits (including, ahem, two home runs), but just four runs as the team topped the O’s 2-1, and 5-3.

In the 1973 postseason, when the Mets again visited the promised land, Koos won Game 3 of the NLCS against the Big Red Machine at Shea Stadium, 9-2, with a masterful performance (complete game, nine Ks, two earned runs, his only real blemish a home run by Dennis Menke in the third).  He followed that up with a win against Oakland in the Fall Classic in Game 5, 2-0, giving up just three hits.

The uniform retirement is well deserved.

“This honor isn’t only for me and my family,” Koosman noted in a statement.  “It’s for the legions of fans I grew to love.  To know that my number will be retired and sit alongside other team legends is one of the greatest tributes I could ever be granted.  I was always proud to be a Met.”

The Mets set up chairs behind second base for the ceremony, attended by 11 members of Koosman’s family, fellow retired number recipient Mike Piazza, and former teammates Ed Kranepool, Art Shamsky, and Wayne Garrett.

The pitcher’s mound and Home Run Apple were festooned with Koosman’s 36.  The rightfield scoreboard replicated Shea’s old scoreboard, with lineups simply stated by uniform number and position flush left and flush right.  And at the end of the ceremony, hosted by renowned Mets voice Howie Rose, a large disc with the number 36 was unveiled above the left field stands, placed in order of retirement, going from right to left.

And the first 25,000 fans went home with a very apropos Koosman bobblehead.

Koosman becomes the third Mets player to have his number retired, following Seaver’s 41 (retired in 1988), and Piazza’s 31 (2016). Previously, the Mets honored their colorful first manager, Casey Stengel, by retiring his number 37 in 1965, and memorialized Gil Hodges, their most revered skipper who piloted that first Championship team, by locking down his No. 14 in 1973.  Hodges passed away earlier that year during spring training due to a heart attack.

And of course, all of baseball has No. 42 retired in honor of Jackie Robinson.

Other discs on the left field façade honor Bill Shea and Ralph Kiner.

The Mets presented Koosman with a framed version of his jersey, further decorated with photos of the lefty in action.

Rose complimented Koos by intoning, “In the 60 years, the Mets have never had a better money pitcher than Jerry Koosman.”

Piazza became his official “presenter.”

“You’ve inspired a generation of Mets fans, and generations after that,” the Hall of Fame catcher said in his introduction.

Ron Swoboda couldn’t attend, but sent a video tribute.

“None of us who are wearing Word Series rings would be wearing World Series rings from 1969 if we didn’t have Jerry Koosman coming right behind Tom Seaver,” commented Swoboda.  “You needed that 1-2 punch.”

Koos thanked the fans in his acceptance speech.

“It’s nice to be back in this beautiful ballpark and with you amazing fans.  I always remember the many years I had the privilege of playing in New York.

“Fans give you an adrenaline rush.  It’s like having an extra player on the field.  Mets fans will always hold a special place in my heart.  I’m deeply touched by all of you.”

He told the media, “If you’re going to be in the big leagues, New York is the best place to play.”

A supreme prankster in addition to being a shutdown lefty, Koos kept the clubhouse loose – along with the likes of Tug McGraw and other locker room schemers.  Koosman once pulled off an elaborate plan that had Seaver convinced he was being traded to the Houston Astros, a couple of years before he was actually dealt to Cincinnati.  It involved a rigged radio and a broadcaster faking a newscast from another room, and Tom Terrific was not amused.

As he loves to retell the bit, Koosman snuck a small speaker device inside Seaver’s locker room radio.  He then convinced a Howard Cosell impersonator to project into this one-radio newscast from another room that Seaver and Kranepool had been traded for Doug Rader and another player.  An enraged Kranepool started breaking bats, and Seaver became just as furious.

“That was fun,” the impish Koosman now admits.

What gives the prank even greater status is that Koosman never admitted he was the culprit until years later after The Franchise actually was traded and the dynamic duo faced each other in a game at Shea Stadium.

They appeared on Kiner’s Korner afterward where the lefty confessed to the righty.

“And he just got as close as he could to me out of camera range and started cussing me out.  I love that stuff.”

The announcement to retire 36 came in September of 2019, and the ceremony was originally scheduled for last year, but Covid-19 postponed that event as it did virtually everything in 2020.

Credit Jeff Wilpon for signing off on the idea.

“Jerry is one of the most iconic Mets of all time, and this forever honor is a tremendous representation of what he meant to the organization,” Wilpon said in a statement at the time.

At the time of the announcement, then-Mets manager Mickey Callaway was wearing No. 36.  Callaway immediately switched to another number and thus becomes the answer to a future trivia question.

For his career, Koosman pitched in 19 big league seasons, ringing up a 222-209 record, a respectable 3.36 ERA, logging 2556 strikeouts in 3829.1 innings, 612 games, 527 starts, 1.259 WHIP.

The two-time All Star (’68 and ’69) is currently 34th on the all-time strikeout list, but when he retired in 1985, he was 16th.  And 14 of the 15 hurlers ahead of him at the time are in the Hall of Fame.  Not bad for a kid from the farmlands of Appleton, Minnesota.

Koosman was not involved in the Midnight Massacre of 1977, when Seaver and other Mets were dealt at the trade deadline, a team shakeup almost akin to what the Chicago Cubs did this past summer.  In retrospect, Koos’ career might have been better served in a new city, as the stripped-down Mets suffered for the next few years.  Koosman won 21 games in 1976, but endured a 20-loss season in ’77 and after another woeful campaign in ’78 requested a trade in the offseason.

“It was most painful, yes.  No one likes to lose, especially me.  We were in a rebuilding situation, a lot of Double-A players.  We just didn’t have a competitive club.”

The Mets accommodated the Minnesota native by sending him to the Twins that winter, and they ended up planting the seeds for their next World Championship, as one of the two prospects they got back from the twin-cities was Jesse Orosco.

Koos spent two and a half seasons with the Twins, was dealt again to the White Sox, where he played another two and half years, then finished his career with two years in Philadelphia.

It’s a given the Mets will eventually retire David Wright’s number 5 at some point in the near future, but there are no definite plans for any other such honors at this time.

Original owner Mrs. Joan Payson did once publicly promise to retire number 24 in honor of Willie Mays.  But the Wilpons never signed off on that IOU.  And you’ll notice the Mets are extremely stingy in handing out No. 8 – once worn by Hall of Famer Gary Carter.  Arguably the only reason they have not officially retired No. 8 for Carter is that he went into the Hall of Fame as an Expo, not as a Met.

Mets President Sandy Alderson talked about the team’s legacies prior to the ceremony.

“I think Steve (Cohen) and myself are committed to celebrating our history.  It’s a storied franchise.  Some people would say iconic, and it’s only that way cause of the history we have and the players that created that history.  And Jerry is at the foremost of that history.”

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