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
When it comes to the number 9, there are some fan favorites and good baseball players who have worn the number in Mets history. There was J.C. Martin who paired with Jerry Grote to backstop the 1969 World Series champions. Gregg Jefferies accomplished the rare feat of twice finishing in the top six in Rookie of the Year voting.
Todd Zeile probably came an inch and Timo Perez hustle to claim this honor himself, especially with his spearheading the Mets players wearing the caps in the wake of 9/11. Brandon Nimmo is an on-base machine who already has the Mets single-season HBP record. Ultimately, this honor may one day belong to him, but for today, the best Mets player to wear the number 9 is Todd Hundley.
The son of former Cubs catcher Randy Hundley was born to play catcher. While there were questions about his bat, Hundley was known as a good defensive catcher. After Gary Carter was released, and Mackey Sasser struggled with the yips, he was rushed to the majors as a 20 year old.
While he got his first call-up in 1990, it took him a few seasons to stick on as the Mets starting catcher. Even with him being a good backstop, it was not until the 1995 season where Hundley truly established himself as a real everyday Major League catcher. That began from the first game of the 1995 season where he hit the first ever grand slam in the first game ever at Coors Field:
In that 1995 season, Hundley would deal with some injury issues, but he would put together his first real year as a player who could catch and hold his own at the plate. That 1995 season was an important year for him, but it was the following season which would define him.
The 1996 Mets were not a very good team, but they were a team with some of the best seasons in team history. In that year, Lance Johnson set the Mets single season record for triples. Bernard Gilkey set the Mets single season mark for doubles. Finally, Hundley would set the Mets single season mark for homers. It was actually much more than that.
Hundley’s 41 homers in 1996 would not only have him break Darryl Strawberry‘s single-season record for homers by a Met. It would also break Roy Campanella‘s single-season mark for homers by a catcher. Hundley would set the record with a homer off future teammate Greg McMichael:
For a Mets team with so much losing and with so many low points since that stretch in the 1980s, it was an important moment. It was so important to the team, they had a hologram picture of Hundley breaking the record on the 1997 year book.
That was an important moment for the Mets not only because of the record, but also because it was their first real sign of hope in years. With Hundley, they had a homegrown budding star to build a team around. In that year, he would make his first All Star team.
While Hundley didn’t set any records in 1997, he did something possibly even more important. He backed up what he did in 1996 by hitting 30 home runs the following year. He would once again be an All Star. More than that, he was a key part of a Mets team who was suddenly good. In fact, that team won a surprising 88 games, and they looked like an up and coming team.
More than that, Hundley and the Mets delivered the first blow in the first ever Subway Series game when baseball introduced Interleague Play. In the first inning of that game, Hundley would actually steal home. More important than that, he would catch every pitch of Dave Mlicki‘s complete game shutout which culminating in his framing a Mlicki curve to strike out Derek Jeter to end the game.
The Mets would take another step the following season emerging as real postseason contenders. Unfortunately, Hundley was not much a part of that. He missed the beginning of the year with reconstructive elbow surgery. That team got off to a slow start without him, and in an effort to save the season, the Mets obtained the shockingly available Mike Piazza, who was moved earlier in the season to the Florida Marlins.
That meant when Hundley came back there was nowhere for him to play. He tried left field, but he struggled out there, and for the good of the team, he told Bobby Valentine the team needed to reduce his role. That request did not come with a trade demand. Still, even though he was relegated as a back-up and pinch hitter, it did not mean he would not contribute.
Hundley’s last hurrah as a member of the Mets came in Houston. The Mets were a game out in the loss column for the Wild Card, and they needed every win they could get. In the top of the 12th, Hundley would hit a go-ahead homer helping the Mets keep pace. Unfortunately, it would not be in the cards for the Mets that year, and it was time from the team to move on from their homegrown star.
The Mets re-signed Piazza necessitating they trade Hundley. They did so moving him to the Dodgers in a deal which netted them Roger Cedeno and Charles Johnson, who was flipped to the Orioles for Armando Benitez. With that, even Hundley gone, he again helped make the Mets a postseason team.
In the ensuing years, he’d be one of the players named in the Mitchell Report putting an asterisk on some of his accomplishments. He’d also be long forgotten with the rise of Piazza, and he would see his record fall to Javy Lopez. Still, when he was with the Mets, in terms of the numbers, he was the best Mets player to ever wear the number 9.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series highlighting the best players in Mets history by highlighting the best Mets player to wear a particular uniform number. In this case, this is not saying Hundley was the ninth best player in Mets history, but rather the best Mets player to wear the number 9.
The Mets Fan
I’m Phil Kerpen, a DC political/policy guy, and I tweet about that and Mets stuff which is kind of a weird mix but some people seem to like it.
I grew up in Brooklyn, but I’ve been in Washington for almost 20 years now. I’ve got four kids and the oldest is six so our house is a pretty busy, but I still try to watch most of the Mets games MLB TV is so great. I still remember listening to strained WFAN signals but these days being a fan in a different city is pretty easy. The first few years after the Expos moved here were pretty great — I got to see the Mets in person for nine games a year, and Mets fans pretty much dominated the sparse crowds at RFK. It’s different now as the Nationals have developed a fan base, but there’s always still a decent Mets contingent here.
How You Became a Mets Fan
I was born in ’79 and started paying attention to baseball in ’85. My brother is a couple years older, and we started collecting baseball cards, watching games, etc. We got an exemption from bedtime for the ’86 World Series, and I’ve been pretty much hooked ever since — although I’ve tried to quit a few times!\n
Favorite Mets Player
Dwight Gooden was my guy as a kid (my brother was a massive Darryl Strawberry fan), so I guess I’d go with him. For a long time, my automatic answer would have been Todd Hundley, but after the Mitchell Report, he’s disqualified. Yoenis Cespedes is my favorite current Met. Hope he brings back his custom walk-up song “The Power” this year — it’s the best.
Favorite Moment in Mets History
Can’t top “Little roller up along first,” but the other big one for me personally was the Dave Mlicki shutout at Yankee Stadium in 97. It was about a month after my 18th birthday, and I went with my little brother. Nonstop trash talk with the Yankees fans, and Mlicki was in and out of trouble every inning but somehow managed to pull it off.
Message to Mets Fans
This team is hot garbage.
It has been almost 15 years since Bobby Valentine has managed the Mets, and because of how history works, the enduring image we have of Bobby V is the time he came back into the dugout with sunglasses and a fake mustache made with eye back after he had been thrown out of a game. Bobby V was much more than that.
After a disappointing player career that included two forgettable seasons with the Mets, Valentine became a coach. In 1983, he was named the third base coach for the George Bamberger led Mets. Despite Bamberger not lasting the season, and General Manager Frank Cashen cleaning house, the Mets decided to keep Valentine when Davey Johnson was hired. From 1983 – 1985, Valentine was generally regarded as a very good third base coach, who helped in the development of a young Mets team from cellar dwellers to contenders. He would be hired as the Texas Rangers manager, and he would miss all of the 1986 season.
After his stint in Texas, a brief stop in Norfolk, and one in Japan, the Mets brought Bobby V back to the organization for the 1996 season. Initially, he was named as the manager of the Tides. However, after Dallas Green had finally run through all of the young arms on the team, Valentine was named the interim manager for the final 31 games of the season. In the offseason, the interim tag would be removed, and he would start the 1997 season as the Mets manager.
The 1997 Mets were THE surprise team in all of baseball. Despite a starting rotation that was comprised of Rick Reed, Dave Mlicki, Bobby Jones, Mark Clark, Brian Bohanon, and Armando Reynoso, the Mets would go from a 71 win team to an 88 win team. Now, there were good seasons for the turnaround. There was the acquisition of John Olerud. There was also another strong season from Lance Johnson, and Todd Hundley proved his record setting 41 home run 1996 season was no fluke. However, there were other factors at play, and they were directly related to the manger.
First, Edgardo Alfonzo was made the everyday third baseman instead of the utility player he was under Green. Also, while Reed had started the season coming out of the bullpen, Bobby V moved him into the rotation. Additionally, whereas Green’s calling card was to abuse his starters’ arms, Valentine protected his starters’ arms (his starters averaged six innings per start and less), and he used the bullpen to his advantage. On a more subjective note, this was a team that played harder and was more sound fundamentally. It was a team that probably played over their heads for much of the season.
One important note from this season, Mlicki threw a complete game shut-out against the Yankees in the first ever Subway Series game. While the Mets were overmatched in terms of talent in that three game series, Bobby V had that group ready to play, and they very nearly took the three game set from the Yankees.
With the Mets having overachieved, the front office led by General Manager Steve Phillips gave his manager some reinforcements. The team would acquire Al Leiter and Dennis Cook from the Marlins. The Mets would also add Japanese pitcher Masato Yoshii from Japan. However, this team was struggling due to Hundley’s elbow injury and Bernard Gilkey and Carlos Baerga having yet another disappointing season. Bobby V and the Mets kept the team above .500 and competitive long enough to allow the front office to make the bold move to add Mike Piazza.
From there, the Mets took off, and they would actually be in the thick of the Wild Card race. They were in it despite the Hundley LF experiment not working. They were in it despite getting nothing offensively from left field and their middle infield. They were in it despite the fact the Mets effectively had a three man bullpen. The latter (I’m looking at you Mel Rojas) coupled with the Braves dominance of the Mets led to a late season collapse and the team barely missing out on the Wild Card.
The Mets re-loaded in 1999 with Rickey Henderson, Robin Ventura, Roger Cedeno, Armando Benitez, and Orel Hershiser (no, Bobby Bonilla is not getting lumped in here). Things do not initially go as planned. After blowing a late lead, the Yankees beat the Mets, and the Mets found themselves a game under .500. Phillips responded by firing almost all of Bobby V’s coaching staff.
The Mets and Bobby V responded by becoming the hottest team in baseball. From that point forward, the Mets were 70-37. At points during the season, they even held onto first place for a few days. The Mets were helped by Bobby V being judicious with Henderson’s playing time to help keep him fresh. Like in year’s past, Bobby V moved on from a veteran not performing to give Cedeno a chance to play everyday, and he was rewarded. Again, like in previous seasons, Bobby V had to handle a less than stellar starting rotation.
In what was a fun and tumultuous season, the Mets won 97 games. The team nearly avoided disaster again by forcing a one game playoff against the Reds for the Wild Card. Not only did the Mets take that game, but they upset the Diamondbacks in the NLDS. The NLDS performance is all the more impressive when you consider Piazza was forced to miss the last two games due to injury. In the NLCS, they just met a Braves team that had their number for the past three seasons. Still, even with the Braves jumping all over the Mets and getting a 3-0 series lead, we saw the Mets fight back.
In Game 4, it was an eighth inning two run go-ahead Olerud RBI single off John Rocker. In Game 5, it was a 15 inning game that was waiting for the other team to blink first. While, the Mets blinked in the top of the 15th with a Keith Lockhart RBI triple, the Mets responded in the bottom of the 15th with Ventura’s Grand Slam single to send the series back to Atlanta. The Mets would be ever so close in Game 6. They fought back from a 5-0 and 7-3 deficit. Unforutnately, neither John Franco nor Benitez could hold a lead to force a Game 7. Then Kenny Rogers couldn’t navigate his way around a lead-off double and bases loaded one out situation in the 11th.
In 2000, Bobby V finally got the rotation he needed with the trade acquiring Mike Hampton and the emergence of Glendon Rusch. However, even with the much improved rotation, it still was not an easy year for the Mets. It rarely ever was during Bobby V’s tenure.
First, the Mets had to deal with the Henderson and Darryl Hamilton situations. Henderson became a malcontent that wanted a new contract. Hamilton lost his starting job due to a toe injury and had become a part time player. The result was the complete transformation of the outfield with Benny Agbayani and Jay Payton becoming everyday players. In the infield, the Mets lost Olerud to free agency and had to convert free agent third baseman Todd Zeile into a first baseman. Additionally, the Mets lost Gold Glove shortstop Rey Ordonez to injury leading the team to have to rely on Melvin Mora as their shortstop for much of the season. In what was perhaps Bobby V’s finest managing job with the Mets, the team made the postseason for the second straight year. It was the first time in Mets history they had gone to consecutive playoff games.
In the postseason, the team showed the same toughness and grit as they had in prior years. In the first game of the NLDS, they overcame an injury to Derek Bell and saw Timo Perez become a folk hero. The Mets outlasted the Giants in Game 2 despite a Benitez blown save. In Game 3, Agbayani hit a walk-off homer in the 13th, and Game 4 saw the Jones one-hitter. With the Mets not having to face the Braves in the NLCS, they steamrolled through the Cardinals en route to their first World Series since 1986. While the team never gave in, the balls did not bounce in their favor. That was no more apparent than when Zeile’s fly ball hit the top of the left field wall and bounced back into play.
From there, Phillips lost his magic touch. The team started to get old in 2001, and by 2002, everything fell apart. After what was his first season under .500 with the Mets, Bobby V was fired after the 2002 season. With one exception, it was the end of a forgettable and disappointing two seasons for the Mets.
One thing that cannot be lost with the 2001 season was how the Mets dealt with the aftermath of 9/11. Every player did their part. So did their manager. After 9/11 happened, Bobby V was a visible face of the Mets franchise visiting firehouses and helping relief aid at Shea Stadium. When it was time to return to playing games, he was able to get his players in a mindset to play baseball games. That is no small feat when your captain was a local guy who lost a friend on 9/11. Also, while it was the players who spearheaded wearing the First Responders’ caps, it was their manager who stood by their side and encouraged them to wear them despite requests to take them off from the Commissioner’s Office.
Through the roller coaster ride that was the 1,003 games of the Bobby V Era, the Mets were 536-437. During that span, Bobby V managed the second most games in Mets history while earning the second most wins in Mets history. His .534 winning percentage is the third best in Mets history just behind Johnson and Willie Randolph. In all but his final season as Mets manager, the Mets either met or exceed their expected (Pythagorean) record.
Bobby V stands as just one of two managers to go to consecutive postseasons. His 13 postseason wins are the most by any manager in Mets history. He’s the only Mets manager to win a postseason series in consecutive postseasons. He’s managed in more postseason series than any other Mets manager.
Overall, Bobby V is an important part of Mets history. Out of all the managers in Mets history, it is fair to say the Bobby V consistently did more with the talent given to him by his front office. For some, he is the best manager in Mets history. Most will certainly agree he is at least the third best manager in Mets history. For all of this, and how he represented the Mets organization during 9/11 and the aftermath, Bobby V should be inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame.