Roots Run Deep


Willie Mays will have his number retired by the New York Mets. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Colin Loughran, Staff Writer

During the final weekend of August, the New York Mets celebrated Old Timers’ Day for the first time in 27 years. It was a day that showcased the very best of Mets history. More dramatically, the club announced it will officially retire the number 24 in honor of New York baseball legend, Willie Mays. The retirement fulfills a promise made decades ago by former Mets’ owner Joan Payson and has garnered much criticism. Obviously, the announcement was made some weeks ago now, but it is critical to consider what the decision means for the Mets culture, especially given they are just now escaping years of mediocrity.

 Mays spent his best days with the New York Giants of yesteryear who eventually fled to San Francisco. In fact, he only played two seasons with the Mets. The “casual” fan may not grasp that Mays was a vocal leader on the 1973 National League Champion Mets, and will definitely not appreciate how he made his way back to New York. Owner Joan Payson had been a major Giants fan before they had gone to California, and had tried many times to convince the team to trade Mays home. Finally, Mays was traded in 1972 after a particularly rough start to his season and various disagreements with management. The aging star’s return was a throwback to a time where NL baseball was a two-team affair in NYC. The New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers ruled the roost and seemingly fought annually for the right to compete against the New York Yankees in the World Series.

  Mays loved New York, and New York loved Mays. At the time of the trade, Mays said, “It’s a wonderful feeling, and I’m very thankful I can come back to New York. I don’t think I’m just on display here. There’s no doubt in my mind that I can help the Mets if I’m used in the right way.” His return was a nostalgic occasion for New York baseball that symbolized how many became Mets’ fans and highlighted the franchise’s origins.

Some have ripped the team’s announcement. Detractors are quick to point out that Mays did not play well as a Met, and repeatedly state he wasn’t in Queens long enough to earn such a prestigious honor. Even without the fact that Payson promised Mays his number would be retired in New York long ago, these kinds of arguments are superficial within the grand scheme of baseball. The Mets would not exist without the initial presence of the New York Giants or  Brooklyn Dodgers. The club is a product of their move westward. It is ludacris to say that Mays, Jackie Robinson, Bobby Thomson and other legends did not play a part in the Mets’ formation. Mays was beloved when he returned precisely because of his role in the New York Giants’ heyday.

The Mets current owner, Steve Cohen, should be lauded for embracing history. The team has seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows in its now 60-year existence. One could argue that the Metropolitans’ “culture” was not one of pride before the arrival of Cohen. Honoring Mays highlights the Mets as a unique organization, one that’s roots run deep into the history of New York City.