Jon Springer, long-time owner of the “Mets by the Numbers” site, loves uniform numbers . . . a lot. Since 1999, his site has been dedicated to tracking the history, assignment and re-assignment of uni numbers for Mets players, and has culled much of his work into a book of the same name, now in its second edition. The book is a must-have for anyone fanatical about the Mets and/or uniform number histories. The VORG posed a few questions to Springer.
VORG: As a kid, did you collect baseball cards, and if so, did you memorize the stats on the back of the cards?
JS: Yes! I was a big card enthusiast, amassing thousands by buying them by the pack, particularly between 1974 and 1981. I don’t remember being especially obsessive about memorizing stats from them, but I was also a voracious morning-paper box-score reader, and loved to follow the long agate-type lists they published on Sundays. Between the cards and the papers — and the yearbooks, that was how you stayed on top of what was happening before dedicated cable channels + the internet.
VORG: Were you always cognizant of which players wore which numbers?
JS: Yes again. One of the things we would do as kids was design and draw our own baseball card designs and the players on them. To me the number was something that “legitimized” it, made it authentic, so my drawings always included the player numbers.
VORG: Where/when did the fascination with uniform numbers kick in?
JS: I think it was always there for me; not as an overt thing, but as a small but important detail of the entire experience. The former Newsday writer Marty Noble, who also cops to a uni-number fetish, described his fascination as “the backbeat, not the song itself.” I knew for example that Jim Beauchamp had to vacate No. 24 when the Mets traded for Willie Mays in 1972 and that was very early in my baseball-watching experience. Looking back I think on some level I recognized that the uniform number was a small detail, but one that distinguished players who otherwise were all dressed alike. And like I said it made the players come to life for me.
VORG: Why uniform numbers in particular? I mean we all have our “niches” of interest in the game, but why that in particular for you?
JS: Well it’s not my only interest! I like a lot about baseball beyond the uni number, but for me highlighting them was a way to express that love by bringing that backbeat forward . I also have an interest in 19th century baseball; in trades and transactions; advanced stats ( though I’m not a quant); biographies and history in general — some of those things of those things you can’t help but bump up against within uni-number research — for example, trades and uniform numbers are like blood relatives.
VORG: Did you play sports in high school/college and if so what number did you (choose to) wear? Was the number based on a certain ballplayer?
JS: I played Little League baseball for a few years but they assigned uniform numbers that ascended by size — I wore 3 and 4. I could tell myself I was Bud Harrelson or Rusty Staub, but really I was reminded I was the 3rd or 4th shortest guy on the club. I kind of went through other numbers in phases. I was into 16, 17 and 18 (Gooden, Hernandez Strawberry) in the 80s. Once I started doing the MBTN project I became aware of the prevalence of No. 6 in Mets history — it’s their most often issued number by far. I used that as a kind of inspiration for the number I’ve been wearing for years in softball, 66 (which was also my birth year). That’s my number now.
VORG: Your site has been active for 17 years. What convinced you to start it back in the blogosphere’s infancy?
JS: A couple of things. One was the energy I felt getting back into baseball in 1997-98 after some time off. I had been living out of state, the Mets had become “the worst team money could buy” and then there was a baseball strike, I had really “lost” baseball but upon moving to NYC in ’96, I rediscovered it, particularly Bobby Valentine’s 1997 Mets team, really connected me with the city and made me feel like I belonged here. At the same time this new virtual publishing medium was emerging and I wanted to participate. Back then, it was a “website” really, not a blog — I’m not sure “blogs” existed then? At any rate, I felt the web would be a good place for a narrowly focused project such as a list of uniform numbers.
VORG: Any site that has been active for this long has to have positive feedback to keep it going, but what was the initial reaction to the site?
JS: Reaction has evolved. For the first 4 or 5 years it was more of a research project than anything. When I published for the first time I didn’t know the numbers of some 150 players, my data wasn’t particularly accurate, may have had some mistakes, etc. To my knowledge there weren’t any such records out there. The Mets for example didn’t keep a list. It wasn’t yet a part of the record at Baseball-reference. And so what I found initially were some people like me for whom uni-number collecting was a kind of secret hobby, and with their help over the years, and some additional work on my own (video, scorecards, transaction records, etc) I was able to improve the quality of the data to the point where today I have accounted for the day and date of nearly every uni issue the team ever had. I say nearly every because there could still be some I don’t know about. I’m also not entirely certain of a few precise dates. That said, no other record of uni numbers is as precise as mine, I don’t think.
VORG: What percent of the site’s content would you say ended up in the book?
JS: Well the data that underpins it came directly from the research. At first the site was a written history but I only wrote enough so as to surround the pictures (I didn’t know how to re-size them then). Over the years the site evolved into what we’d consider a “blog” What I think translates from the site to the book is the flip and breezy spirit of it. Although it’s a “serious” research project capable of withstanding some scrutiny, it’s just uni numbers, and it’s just the Mets — theirs is a story of frequent and sometimes comical failure punctuated by moments of high drama and excellence.
VORG: I see that Matt Silverman also has helped author other “(team) by the numbers” books. What sort of specific expertise did Matt bring to your book?
JS: Matt was one of the people who reached out in the early years of the site. He convinced me MBTN could be a book and we agreed to work together on it. He put together a proposal; I didn’t know anything about that part. Unfortunately that was in 2003 and the last-place Mets held no interest from publishers, although some remarked it was a good idea. Once the Mets got good again in 2006 we heard back from an editor who’d rejected us a few years earlier, Mark Weinstein, who’d in the time between moved to a new publisher, Skyhorse. Matt is a full-time freelance author and had interest in using the “by the Numbers” idea to birth a whole series of books. He understood that connecting numbers to players and back again was “the way the mind of the fan works.” Matt also wrangled photos and wrote a lot of the “sidebars” that accompany each chapter.
VORG: Seth Lugo recently became the first Met to wear #67 … I assume your database will need a new record for him. Which brings me to this question. How do you keep on top on all the personnel/uniform number changes?
JS: Once upon a time mbtn used to be “first” with this kinda news but over the past five years I’d say interest in uni numbers as a thing has really moved from the background, especially with dedicated Mets fans. (I feel as though I played a small part in this). Speculation as to uni numbers has become a part of the excitement of a trade or free agent signing. Twitter has played a big role in this. I feel like my role today is to provide perspective on the number and its place in history as a kind of “second-day” lede. On the site I tend to write about the club like any other blogger might but with a uni number perspective; the frequent changes keeps it current. As for keeping up the records, several years ago I “donated” my data to the Ultimate Mets Database, a team-specific online encylopedia which launched the same month as MBTN (February of 1999). Integrating the data allowed us to generate lists of “most home runs by uni number” or whatever. It also provided a better system of organizing the data than I ever had. Inputting records is easy; Richard DiStefano (the brilliant UMDB guy) created a web-based tool that allows me to update in seconds.
VORG: Favorite Met uniform number and why.
JS: As I mentioned above I’ve kind of drifted in and out of favorites over the years. I have an affinity today for No. 6 which is a number that’s been issued more often than any other, but almost exclusively to scrubs and bit players. They really make up the majority of any team’s history, volume-wise anyway, so I like to highlight that.