In a world full of strife and vice, thank god we can take refuge in web sites like Jon Springer’s Mets by the Numbers. Yeah, I know there’s been a lot of Mets coverage around here lately, and that some of you have probably had enough of it already, but trust me on this one: You don’t have to be a Mets fan to appreciate Springer’s amazing site, which is easily the most uni-numerically obsessive spot on the internet.
Springer’s been running the site for seven years, during which time he’s delved into long-running mysteries (what number did Mike Bishop wear in 1983?), kept track of oddities (Jeff McKnight wore five different numbers as a Met), and basically documented a key aspect of the team’s history.
I’ve corresponded with Springer since about 2000, but I hadn’t met him until earlier this year, when he attended the Uni Watch Athletics Aesthetics Party. We’ve hung out a few times since then, including a few weeks ago, when we got together in Brooklyn to discuss his project over a few beers, burgers, and fries. He brought along a bunch of the original notes he compiled while setting up his web site (look here, here, here, here, and here). When you see all this handwritten stuff, you start to realize what a Herculean task Springer undertook, which makes his site that much more impressive.
The interview is pretty long, but stick with it, even if you don’t care about the Mets — the issues we discussed would apply pretty much to any team.
Uni Watch: How old are you, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
Jon Springer: I’m 40, I live in Brooklyn, and I’m an editor at a trade publication.
UW: Are you a lifelong Mets fan?
JS: Yes. My older brother and dad were Mets fans, so I was born into it.
UW: What’s your earliest memory of being interested in uniform numbers — either the Mets’ numbers or uni number in general?
JS: I tended to notice them, I guess, as a kid. Like, my older brother, he’s as big a fan, and as knowledgeable, as I am, but he doesn’t know anything about uniform numbers. But I remember numbers, for some reason.
UW: Were you poring over the roster in your scorecard when you were a kid, taking note of everyone’s number?
JS: Not necessarily. But when I was a kid, my friends and I were into baseball cards, and we’d draw our own cards, and we wanted them to look authentic, so you had to include the player’s number in there. You couldn’t just draw Jerry Koosman — he had to have “36” on his jersey. So that probably had something to do with it. I just associated the players with their numbers.
UW: Did you play Little League or youth sports, and was your number important to you?
JS: I only played a few years of Little League, and they gave us numbers based on height.
UW [incredulous]: You mean, like, the shortest kid was No. 1?
JS: You got it. I was No. 3 once, and No. 4 twice.
JS: A little bit, but it was also like, “Oh, I’m the scrawniest kid.” Bud Harrelson was cooler in the Met pantheon than me being the third-shortest kid was in Little League.
UW: Are you number-centric in general? Like, are you particularly good at math?
UW: Do you have a lucky number?
UW: Do you play the lottery?
JS: I had a job in high school, working in a senior citizens’ apartment complex. One of my jobs was to run errands for the residents, and I often had to go buy lottery tickets for them. I would play 6, 10, 13, 17, 18, and 37. June 10th is my birthday, so that’s the 6 and the 10, and 13 was this number I sort of connected with, as slacker high school kid, I guess. But the other numbers were for the Mets: 17 and 18 were for Hernandez and Strawberry, and 37 was for Casey Stengel.
UW: Oooh, very nice. Now, when did you start tracking and documenting the Mets’ uniform numbers? Were you doing this before the web site existed?
JS: I started the web site just because I was interested in starting a web site. I always thought that I knew what all the numbers were — which turned out to be wrong, but still, I thought I knew. And I had just gotten my first personal computer, and I felt like there was this thing going on, the internet, and I wanted to participate. I was inspired by this web site about Bobby Valentine — it’s not up anymore, but it was really good, really smart. And it occurred to me that the internet was a good place to do a project that had a narrow focus and could be obsessive.
UW: I wouldn’t know anything about that myself.
JS: So I thought about might work on the internet. At one point I thought about doing a site about Turk Wendell. And then in the summer of 1998, I came up with the idea of accumulating an all-time numerical Mets roster — sort of for my own knowledge and sort of for this web project I was envisioning. That Thanksgiving, I ruptured my Achiles tendon, and I was in a cast and on crutches. So with nothing to do, I started going through my dad’s files. He’s a cartoonist, and he did a lot of sports-related material during his career, so I went through all his old yearbooks and scorecards. And I took this yellow pad of paper and wrote, “1,” and wrote down everyone who wore than number, and then “2,” and so on — just to kinda get started.
UW [astonished]: You weren’t doing this on your newly purchased PC?
JS: No. I’m still not good at data collection or data management. Really, the whole thing’s on paper. So that’s sort of where it started.
UW: Do you still have that original yellow pad?
JS: No, I threw it away a few years ago when I moved. But I have photos of it. Anyway, once I got started, it happened pretty quickly.
UW: And when did the web site go live?
JS: February 1999. I used the WYSIWYG program and Netscape Communicator. That’s what I still use! I’m not a web site designer or database manager — I’m a writer. So I was working hard on the text part of the site, and stealing photographs, scanning photographs from yearbooks and all that other shit that I had. And basically, what I was trying to do was to write enough text to surround the pictures, because I didn’t know how to resize photos. [Laughs.] I still don’t know much of that stuff.
UW: So the site in those early days looked a lot like it still looks today?
JS: Very much so. One reason it never changed is that I had no design software, I didn’t have lots of fonts. But my thing was that I wanted to write a history of the Mets and incorporate this numerical concept. So the site started on February 2nd, 1999, and at that point I was missing 150 players who I had no idea what number they wore. It was very unsophisticated compared to what it is today.
UW: Did you get reaction relatively quickly? Did people find the site?
JS: Yeah, but slowly. I still get e-mails from people saying, “Holy shit, where did this come from, it’s great!” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s only been up for seven years.” I guess I didn’t do a very good job linking out. I’m not a link whore. I think if I had been more proactive, I’d probably get more hits.
UW: But it sounds like you probably did this as much for yourself as for anyone else.
JS: That’s probably true. Y’know, a lot of people ask, “Link to my site” — like, when I started the page, it seemed like everyone had a “Links” section on their site, and they’d like to everyone. But I decided I was gonna be…
UW: A little more discriminating?
JS: Exactly. “Links That Don’t Suck,” only. Fuck the rest of ’em. I don’t mean to come off as elitist — if I like it, I’ll link to it. But if I don’t like it… That’s why I don’t get as many hits.
UW: Okay, now sometimes it’s hard to document what number someone’s been wearing, especially if a guy’s been riding the Triple-A shuttle up and and down all season and they haven’t always given him the same number each time. How do you track down these things?
JS: I have to say that readers who found the site have been more helpful than I would have been on my own. I encountered a small handful of people who were more obsessive about this stuff than I ever could have hoped to be.
UW: Was that a comedown for you? Were you like, “Shit, I thought I was The Man, but now it turns out I’m not The Man after all”?
JS: Nah, as long as they didn’t publish a web site first! But remember, my thing was that I was trying to write, not just research. Anyway, it was through the help of a few readers who were really meticulous and demanded that I make changes — fix this, revise this — that I began to realize what I was doing was actually valuable.
UW: You mean you realized you were documenting history?
JS: Yeah. It helped me realize that uniform numbers are more than just ways to remember players — they’re bookmarks. A player wears a certain number for a certain period of time and that defines them for that time, because only one player can wear that number on that team. And if they change it, there’s a story there, which is cool from a writing standpoint. You could reverse-engineer the whole history of uniform numbers and find transactions and trades. And that didn’t really dawn on me until readers started getting in touch and breaking down who wore what number right down to the exact date. So that’s when I realized I was creating a moving history of the team, not just a list of numbers.
UW: I know readers send you a lot of stuff — recently, I saw someone sent you a scorecard that showed Dan Frisella wearing No. 29 in 1969 [instead of his later 34], and another time someone sent you video of Jesse Orosco wearing No. 61 in 1979 [instead of his customary 47]. How’d he get that video?
JS: I have no idea. But the Orosco story was one of the very first queries I had about the web site. This guy wrote to me and said, “Jesse Orosco wore No. 61 for his Mets debut.” And I was like, “Really? Prove it.” And he couldn’t document it — he just remembered. And actually, it was documented in this book, called This Date in Mets History by Dennis D’Agostino, who I think was a PR intern with the Mets. The book included uniform numbers, and it included Orosco wearing 61. What it didn’t include was any context. Why would Orosco wear No. 61? And that became one of the several holy grails on the site.
UW: So what was the story behind that?
JS: I knew and trusted the guy who told me about Orosco, so I put a note on the site, saying I was pretty sure it was true and asking if anyone could document it. And sure as shit, some guy wrote in and said he had the scorecard from the first game of the 1979 season, because he was there. And later, another guy sent me video stills. The thing is, Orosco wasn’t even supposed to be on the team. The team was in the dying days of the DeLouret ownership, and they were cutting costs all over the place — there weren’t even trying. And they released all these players at the end of spring training, including Nelson Briles, and that’s how Orosco made the team. And that’s why he was wearing a stinky spring training jersey with no name on the back — it was a last-minute thing.
UW: What were some other holy grails?
JS: I’ve got this one reader — he doesn’t like his name published, so let’s just say he’s a professor at a Midwestern college. And he’s obsessed with the Mets’ numbers. He says he used to call the Mets every time a new player joined the team to ask what number the guy’d be wearing, and they would tell him. Anyway, he’s come up with a lot of surprising but accurate discoveries, including one about Roger Craig. The story there is that Roger Craig changed his number from 38 to 13 to stop a 19-game losing streak in 1963. But what nobody knows — except this professor guy and me, and now everyone who reads this interview — is that for one game in 1963, he borrowed Tracy Stallard’s No. 36 jersey. And he went out and lost. So the Mets actually had two guys who wore the same number.
UW: But what did Stallard wear that day?
JS: Well, he wouldn’t have pitched, because he was a starter and it wasn’t his day.
UW: Yeah, but what’d he wear sitting in the dugout?
JS: I don’t know. I don’t even know if that’s legal or whatever.
UW: How did you confirm that?
JS: I ended up finding it in a Sporting News article. The problem was, at first I couldn’t confirm it, and my policy at the time was to publish only stuff that I could be sure of. And the guy, the professor guy, was like, “Aw, c’mon, you’ve gotta put it in there, I know it’s true.” But hey, I don’t know if it’s true — I’m trying to adhere to certain standards, y’know? And you don’t wanna get to the point where you’re basically taking orders from your readers and they’re telling you what to do.
UW: Is the Mets front office aware of you, and have you ever consulted them for research assistance?
JS: They know about the project, I think. I left a message several years ago for Charlie Samuels [the equipment manager], trying to get a phone interview with him — never heard back. I’ve written to Jay Horowitz [the PR director] a few times, because if I call to ask for anything, they say, “Send a fax to Jay Horowitz,” so I’ve done that a few times. I’ve always gotten a response, which is usually, y’know, “Good luck with your project.”
UW: Have they ever come to you, asking for your help in documenting some aspect of the team’s history?
UW: Have they ever hassled you about using the Mets name or anything like that?
JS: Absolutely not. They’ve been good about that. And I’ve ripped off hundreds of photos from their yearbooks, without permission, and I thank them for that.
UW: What’s it like when you’re on vacation, or traveling overseas? Like, are you freaking out knowing that the team is making roster moves and you’re not around to keep your finger on the uni-numeric pulse, so to speak?
JS: Sometimes, yeah. I remember being in Europe for a few weeks in 2001, when they released Rickey Henderson, and yeah, I wished I was home so I could update the site. But at the same time, I don’t know how many people really care about that on a day-to-day basis, y’know?
UW: Is your head completely wired for Mets numbers? Like, if you’re at a motel and they give you room No. 20, do you instinctively think of Tommie Agee?
JS [simultaneously]: Howard Johnson? [Mutual laughter.] Yeah, to a certain extent. The PIN for my ATM card is a Mets-related number, too.
UW: Do you follow other teams’ numbers, or even notice them, or just the Mets?
JS: I notice when there are unusual numbers on other teams. Like Josh Towers, who wears a single-digit number, even though he’s a pitcher. I notice that kind of thing.
UW: What if a Mets pitcher did that?
JS: That would be really historic. Cory Lidle wore No. 11, as you know [actually, I didn’t], and that’s the lowest number any Mets pitcher has ever worn. At one time, actually, all the Met pitchers wanted to wear numbers in the teens, but Sid Fernandez wouldn’t go for it [because he wore No. 50, in honor of his native Hawaii, just as Benny Agbayani later did].
UW: Are you a memorabilia guy? Like, do you have a bunch of jerseys with cool numbers?
JS: No, I’m not a collector.
UW: Which teams do you think have the best-looking uniform numbers?
JS: You mean the actual numerals, the font?
UW: Yeah, is that something you look at too?
JS: The Red Sox have an excellent look. The “4” is pretty normal-looking, but then the “3” has those cool angles, kind of pointy — I like that. Then there’s that minor league team with the uneven numbers…
JS: Yeah, uh, I kinda like the Mets’ numbers better.
UW: I’ve been watching some Angels games recently, and damn, their numbers look great.
JS: Yeah, they’ve really improved their uniform over the past few years. Think back to how horrible it was with the fucking wings….
UW: Don’t even get me started. Now, your wife isn’t a sports fan, right?
JS: That isn’t necessarily true.
UW: Well, that’s what she told me.
JS: Well, if I was hit by a bus tomorrow, she probably wouldn’t care about how the Mets did as much as she does now, that’s true. She’d probably remarry a non-sports fan.
UW: So does this project of yours put a strain on your relationship?
JS: She’s very supportive of it, actually. So we’re at the point where we don’t necessarily share the “dying for the Mets” thing, but she never turns me down when I tell her to come to a game, and…
UW: Wait a minute — you tell her to come to a game?
JS [laughing]: You know, ask her, whatever. Like, she’s not the one who comes home and says, “I’ve got Mets tickets for tonight” — I’m the one who does that. Anyway, she’s been very encouraging about my pursuing this project to the extent that I have. Although she thinks I spend too much time on the internet. I do spend a lot of time and energy on this.
UW: I wouldn’t know anything about that either. What about friends and family?
JS: My dad’s really into it. He thinks it’s, like, the greatest web site ever.
UW: So he’s proud of you. But what about the older brother you mentioned?
JS: He likes it, I guess. But he doesn’t really care about uniform numbers.
UW: What about people at work? Do they all know about your site?
JS: Yeah, some of them. What I don’t like is being introduced to people as “the guy with the web site.” I’d be just as happy if people didn’t know.
UW: Anything we haven’t covered?
JS: Yeah, I was thinking about this on the way over. I play on softball team, and I don’t have a consistent number. I wore 7 this year — I guess that’s for Reyes. A couple of years ago I wore 5, for Shinjo. I’ve worn 13, 17 — basically, I don’t have a favorite number. But I’m looking for one. The other day I was outside and I was thinking, “24 would be a cool number.” It’s not retired by the Mets, but it’s semi-retired, for Willie Mays.
UW: Yeah, but then they unretired it, for Rickey, and Mays raised a big stink [because original team owner Joan Payson had supposedly promised him that the number would never be used again, although it was never officially retired]. Willie was so out of line there — he played a whopping season and a half for the Mets, big deal. The Giants retired his number, so isn’t that enough?
JS: The Mets don’t always seem to be great stewards of their own history. They do some weird shit. They overdo some things, they overlook other things. And I imagine it’s because interns must run the whole show there.
UW: I think it’s also because the Wilpons are much more interested in highlighting their era of ownership than the Payson era. Like the Shea Stadium 40th anniversary patch featured those neon figurines on the outside of the stadium, which is fine, but they could have just as easily designed the patch so it also showed those blue and orange metal panels that used to be on the stadium’s exterior. But when Wilpon and Doubleday bought the team, one of the first things they did was to get rid of those panels. It was their way of saying, “This is our stadium now.” So they wouldn’t show the panels on the patch either, even though that was the stadium’s graphic signature for years.
JS: Good point.
UW: Last question: You’ve just been traded to the New York Mets. What number do you ask for?
JS: Today I’m gonna say 24.
UW: Because of Willie Mays?
JS: Because, because I don’t have a favorite number, goddamn it. Maybe my favorite number would be the one they’d issue me, and I’d say, “Hey, that’s it — this is my favorite number.” Things just happen, y’know? You don’t always make them happen.
Well put. Big thanks to Jon for his time and insights, and to everyone who’s read all the way to the end. The next Uni Watch Profiles subject will be Joe Hilseberg, who used to work in the Baltimore shop that sewed all the numbers and letters on the Orioles’ and Ravens’ jerseys. Look for that interview in the next week or two.