Best Mets Of All Time: No. 23 Bernard Gilkey
With 34 different Mets players wearing the number 23, it is one of the more popular player numbers in Mets team history. When you think of the number, you are reminded of how great Pat Mahomes was out of the Mets bullpen in 1999, Mike Baxter‘s catch saving Johan Santana‘s no-hitter, and Bernard Gilkey.
Entering the 1996 season, the St. Louis Cardinals no longer had room on their roster for Gilkey, the hometown kid. He was squeezed out by other outfielders making Gilkey an expensive back-up for a team looking to free up money to address other needs. He was a player entering his prime, which made him all the more enticing for a Mets team looking to turn their franchise around.
While Gilkey could be expected to be an improvement over Joe Orsulak, and a significant one at that, no one could be really prepared for the absolutely great season Gilkey had in store for the Mets in 1996.
That 1996 season was marked by a number of offensive records compiled by the trio of Gilkey, Todd Hundley, and Lance Johnson. Believe it or not, there were eight separate single-season records set that year, and even to this date, the feats accomplished in that season remain in the Mets single-season top 10 lists.
We would get a sense of how special a year it would be from the Mets new lineup when Hundley and Gilkey homered on Opening Day against Gilkey’s former team. That was the first RBI in 117 total for the season. That would tie Howard Johnson for the Mets then single-season record.
Overall, he would hit .317/.393/.562 with 44 doubles, three triples, 30 homers, and 117 RBI. Those were great numbers which were part of his season long onslaught of the Mets record books.
In addition to the RBI title, he would have the second highest SLG and OPS. He finished just behind his teammate Johnson for the most total bases in a season. His OPS+ was fourth best. His 44 doubles still remains a team record, and his extra base hits were then second only to HoJo.
When all was said and done, Gilkey’s 8.1 WAR would be the best season a Mets position player ever had. Really, it obliterated the record with Cleon Jones‘ 7.0 in 1969 being second. That mark would only be passed in future years by David Wright and Carlos Beltran.
For some reason, Gilkey didn’t make the All-Star team that year even though he was the second best player in the National League that year. Despite that, Gilkey still received some notoriety not just for his hitting prowess, but also for how wide his eyes opened when he saw a pitch he could drive somewhere. That would actually lead to him getting a memorable cameo in the summer blockbuster Men in Black.
Gilkey would not be able to replicate his 1996 success, but then again, there are very people in Major League history who could. Still, Gilkey was an important player for the Mets who did help take them from their last 90+ loss season in the aftermath of the great 1980s Mets teams to the next era of winning Mets baseball.
Even though he never replicated that success. Gilkey had some real big moments during the 1997 season. One of the big moments came in the first ever Subway Series. With his first inning double off of Andy Pettitte, Gilkey became the first ever player to record a hit in a regular season game between the Mets and Yankees. When John Olerud doubled, he scored the first ever run. Thanks to Dave Mlicki, it would prove to be the game winning run.
On the following day, even though the Mets lost, his homer off of David Wells would be the first homer in the Subway Series.
This was part of a fun and surprising year where the Mets won 88 games. They would be in the pennant race late in the season. Late in that season, Gilkey would hit a pinch hit three run homer to give the Mets a late season win to keep them alive in the Wild Card race:
While the Mets fell short that season, Gilkey did all he could do to power the Mets into that 1997 postseason. In fact, he would hit .329/.404/.600. Still, the Mets could not catch the Braves or the eventual World Series Champion Marlins that year.
Unfortunately for Gilkey, he struggled in 1998. Those struggles were partially related to a vision issue, and those issues eventually led to the Mets trading him to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Gilkey’s Mets career lasted just short of three full seasons. Still, in that timeframe, he was an impactful player. He had an all-time great season in 1996. He forever etched his name in the Subway Series record books. Finally, he helped turn the Mets from a 90 loss team to a postseason contender. For his efforts, he is actually the Mets fourth best LF by WAR, and he is the best Mets player to ever wear the number 23.
3. Curtis Granderson
4. Lenny Dykstra
5. David Wright
6. Wally Backman
7. Jose Reyes
8. Gary Carter
9. Todd Hundley
10. Rey Ordonez
11. Wayne Garrett
12. John Stearns
13. Edgardo Alfonzo
14. Gil Hodges
15. Carlos Beltran
16. Dwight Gooden
17. Keith Hernandez
18. Darryl Strawberry
19. Bob Ojeda
20. Howard Johnson
21. Cleon Jones
22. Al Leiter