Heavy Into Jeff: The Jeff McKnight Story
No player in Mets history has worn as many uniform numbers in the same career as Jeff McKnight. Over an sporadic four-year career with the Mets, the bespectectacled ulilityman suited up in an amazin' five different uniform numbers. His story, naturally, is one of persistence and versatility.
Jefferson Alan McKnight had a long journey into Met history. Born on Feb. 18, 1963 in Conway, Ark., McKnight, the switch-hitting son of former Cubs' utilityman Jim McKnight, was selected by the Mets in the second round of the January, 1983 free-agent draft. He spent the next six-and-a-half years in the Met farm system, developing into the kind of player who does many things adequately and none particularly well. McKnight could -- and did -- play all 9 positions as a minor leaguer, yet he had neither the power, nor the speed, nor the fielding skill to project as a big league starter. Never even invited to Major League camp, McKnight by 1987 had settled into a reserve role for AAA Tidewater and it appeared his chances for success in the big leagues were slim.
Then came 1989. The Mets' bid to repeat as Eastern Division champions would run off the tracks early, when All-Star starters Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez hit the disabled list within a week of one another in May. And when starting second baseman Tim Teufel sprained an ankle while jogging outside Wrigley Field on June 5, McKnight, who had logged 1,795 Minor League at-bats to that point, finally got the call. The following day, pinch-hitting lefthanded for Roger McDowell, in the stadium his father played in, McKnight drove a 2-1 delivery from Calvin Schiraldi into left field for a single.
McKnight was wearing No. 15 then. He would see action in another five games, including two starts, before being optioned to Tidewater June 18 when Teufel returned to active duty. He spent the rest of the season there.
The story might have ended then, as the Mets released McKnight following the '89 season. However, he caught on with Baltimore and spent the next two years as a part-time Oriole backup and DH, becoming one of 31 second basemen to play alongside Cal Ripken during the Iron Man's consecutive game streak. Nontendered by Baltimore following the 1991 season, McKnight again caught on with the Mets, who offered him a nonroster invitation to Spring Training in 1992.
This time, he made the team, wearing No. 5 (Kevin Elster had 15 at that time and 13 -- McKnight's uni # with the O's -- belonged to Rodney McCray). McKnight spent all of April, and most of August and September with the Mets that year. In 1993, McKnight again had to fight for an opening day job -- and won it -- despite seeing his No. 5 issued to hotshot rookie Jeromy Burnitz, who'd debut later that season. McKnight instead opened 1993 in No. 7 but changed jerseys on May 22 when manager Jeff Torborg and his staff were fired. Dallas Green's new coach Bobby Wine wanted No. 7 and got it. McKnight switched to 17; but for the first time as Met, spent an entire year without a visit to Norfolk.
Once again in 1994, McKnight found himself -- and his number -- pushed aside for a higher-profile teammate. This time it was pitcher Bret Saberhagen, who was unhappy with the No. 18 issued him in '93 and began 1994 in McKnight's 17. Accepting the lot of the 25th man, McKnight acquiesed and took No. 18. Jeff would learn soon enough what Sabes disliked about 18: Struggling with a .143 average in June, McKnight went onto the disabled list with a strained rib cage. The Bergen Record gave him a midseason grade of F, noting his "only value to the Mets [is that] he's a Bob Dylan fan."
Newspapers speculated that summer that the Mets had "disabled" McKnight merely to create roster space artifically ("You can believe what you want to believe," Jeff said). But they hadn't stopped jerking him around. Sent to a AAA rehab assignment in July, McKnight was recalled to the Majors on Aug. 11 so that the team could send its promising young players -- Burnitz and Fernando Vina -- to AAA so they'd continue to play in the event of a strike. On Aug. 11, 1994, in Philadelphia, in the top of the 12th inning of a 1-1 game, McKnight entered as a pinch hitter for Eric Gunderson and singled off Tom Edens, only to be thrown out at second trying to stretch it into a double. The Phillies won the game in the bottom of the 12th, the players struck as threatened at midnight, and Jeff McKnight would never play another Major League game. His legacy: 5 home runs, 34 RBI and a record that might never be broken: Five different Met uniform numbers.
If Jeff McKnight leads the lineup of multiple-number wearing Mets, Ed Lynch is its starting pitcher.
Fans best remember Lynch for wearing No. 36—his digits for 145 of his 167 career games with the Mets. But his 22 other appearances were divided among three numbers on his back during 1980 and 1981.
Lynch owes much of his number collection, indirectly, to Craig Swan, the veteran Met pitcher whose frequent breakdowns over the tail end of his career provided Lynch with his first three opportunities — and first three uni numbers. Shoulder trouble suffered by Swan in late August of 1980 required the Mets to summon Lynch while on a West Coast trip. Like several Met callups in 1980, Lynch was initially issued a high number (59) for his debut appearance in San Francisco. But Lynch was wearing No. 35 shortly after the Mets returned home to Shea.
In April of 1981, Lynch reappeared in No. 35 after Swan was taken out of action by his own teammate: Attempting to catch Tim Raines stealing second in the first inning, catcher Ron Hodges’s throw drilled Swan in the back, breaking one of Swan’s ribs (needless to say, Raines was safe; he eventually scored to hand Swan an especially hard-luck loss). Lynch was sent back to Tidewater shortly after Swan was reactivated, mere days before a two-month strike interrupted the season. Baseball resumed anew in August, but Swan’s shoulder was only older and rustier, and Lynch was back; only this time, he was wearing No. 34. That’s because Randy Jones, the former All-Star whose 35 jersey would one day be retired by the Padres, apparently decided during the strike to take back his familiar number (Jones was in 25 previously).
Lynch finally won a roster spot on his own ability in 1982, and remained a good Met soldier until 1986, in his familiar No. 36.
Utility infielder Kevin Collins also wore four different numbers—one for each truncated visit with the Mets over four seasons. He debuted in 1965 as No. 10; returned for a September call-up in 1967 as 19; spent four months wearing No. 16 in 1968; and finally, inherited Jerry Buchek’s former No. 1 in 1969 before becoming outbound freight in the famous Donn Clendenon trade with Montreal.
Name Numbers Worn
Jeff McKnight 5, 7, 15, 17, 18
Kevin Collins 1, 10, 16, 19
Ed Lynch 34, 35, 36, 59
Darrel Sutherland 43, 45, 47
Cleon Jones 34, 12, 21
John Stephenson 12, 19, 49
Jim Hickman 6, 9, 27
Mike Jorgensen 10, 16, 22
Hank Webb 22, 29, 30
Hubie Brooks 62, 39, 7
Clint Hurdle 7, 13, 33
Chuck Carr 1, 7, 21
Kevin Elster 2, 15, 21
Charlie O’Brien 5, 22, 33
Ron Darling 12, 15, 44
Jason Phillips 7, 23, 26
David Cone 16, 17, 44
Jae Seo 40, 38, 26
Roger Craig 13, 36, 38
Lee Mazzilli 12, 16, 13
Pedro Feliciano 55, 39, 25
Mike DiFelice 6, 33, 9
Marlon Anderson 18, 23, 9
Ramon Martinez 22, 26, 6
Robinson Cancel 4, 40, 29
Anderson Hernandez 1, 4, 11