The player’s name was whispered down the line, from the Mets’ front office to equipment manager Charlie Samuels.
Ready the blue and orange, proclaimed sources at the top. Gary Sheffield was to become a Met.
With a “go” from Samuels, Stitches owner Russ Gompers commanded his sewing machines to hum. Before the slugger’s name could be thrown into the realm of public rumor, the letters “S-H-E-F-F-I-E-L-D” were threaded into the back of a uniform, each stab of the needle inching the All-Star toward the batter’s box in Queens.
With haste, Gompers, whose company is based in Whitestone, stuffed the freshly spun jersey in his bag and brought it to the Mets’ facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. It was handed to Samuels — never to be seen again.
That’s because, on this occasion about a decade ago, a deal to bring Sheffield to the Mets fell through. When Sheffield signed with the Mets in 2009, few would know he was so close to wearing blue and orange many years earlier.
But Gompers, who prepared for “Shef” to wear those colors, knows what was lost.
“We could have had him back then,” he laments, “before he was 40.”
If it weren’t for his job as the Mets’ primary stitcher, Gompers would still know the Amazin’s roster up and down. He would just hear of the Mets’ transactions from stoop chatter, not a personal phone call, as was the case after the Mike Piazza trade, which had him rushing back from a road trip to piece together the hometown hero’s first shirt.
In a shop filled with cluttered sports memorabilia, Gompers has spent 15 years overseeing the Mets’ jersey finishing hub, but the walls are covered with few of his creations. Instead, visitors behold mostly adorations of his favorite football team, the Miami Dolphins: a signed University of Pittsburgh jersey from quarterback Dan Marino, a mini Purdue helmet with quarterback Bob Griese’s autograph and another Michigan one with son Brian Griese’s. “I’m a nut like everyone else,” he said, chuckling.
Inside an inconspicuous white door is Gompers’ treasure — the latest batch of Mets attire. Two seamstresses have their heads down, preparing game jerseys for closer Francisco Rodriguez and shortstop Jose Reyes. A stack of finished shirts bear the names Wright and Delgado.
On any given day, Gompers might need to produce seven jerseys for one player, including home and away jerseys in black, white, gray and pinstripe. Pitchers, such as K-Rod, demand more replacement gear because of their penchant for perspiration.
“Whatever the team wants, we will do,” Gompers said. “If they needed 30 done in one day, we do it.”
When quarterbacking legend Brett Favre was shipped to New York last summer, Gompers concocted a Favre Jets jersey for Samuels to sport around the clubhouse only days after.
While the Mets are not his biggest client — he produces travel baseball and softball uniforms and sweaters for pro hockey’s Islanders — Gompers relishes work in the Majors. He often takes on the visiting team’s stitching, as well, where he has learned to appreciate the Mets’ attention to quality. “Cincinnati comes into town and hands me a pair of pants with 20 rips in it and asks me to fix it,” Gompers said. “With the Mets, one tear and it’s done.”
The role of designated stitcher comes with its quirks. Jerseys straight from manufacturer Majestic have come in with errors, such as “EWN YORK” on the front of outfielder Cliff Floyd’s jersey or “VALENTIN” for former manager Bobby Valentine. The hardest stitch alteration had to be Jason Isringhausen’s Mercury Mets uniform in 1999, when players’ names were printed vertically down the back. Not so easy for a pitcher with a 12-digit last name. So, Gompers shortened it to “IZZY.”
Add that stitch to a lexicon of unique names. President Bill Clinton and wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin have worn Gompers’ uniforms as first-pitch stars.
And some jersey backs prove ominous. Gompers knew former manager Willie Randolph would be fired, possibly before the Mets headman, because he stitched the first uniforms for replacement bench coach Ken Oberkfell and pitching coach Dan Warthen. A reporter once accused the Mets inside man of prematurely leaking trades and other transactions to the media, an allegation he calls “bull.”
In exchange for his loyalty, Gompers has enjoyed a seat at home games and a trip to Japan with the team in 2000. Moreover, he holds dear memories of being called “Stitch” by players during the Valentine era.
He cherishes his Mets gig — which means roster moves don’t leave the shop until the jersey is on the namesake’s back.
“You know, Charlie says keep them under your hat, so we do it,” Gompers said.
Gompers is a diehard fan. He knew of the Mets equipment manager before the two were on the phone for the first time, with Samuels promising to hand all his business over to Stitches if his shop could churn out a call-up’s jersey after their regular sewer had flaked out.
It took 30 minutes for Gompers to complete the most nerve-racking stitch job of his career, eyeing up the placement of every letter before handing in his test run and earning his Mets stripes. Since then, he has played a part in the club’s history, designing the team’s 9-11 patch in 2001 and another one especially for Piazza’s chest protector for the first game back after the tragedy — the same game the star catcher hit a walk-off home run for the home team at Shea.
At that game, he was acknowledged by the public address announcer for Piazza’s patch creation. But he doesn’t need the oral credit to feel he is a special part of the Mets organization.
For years he has come to games and read the names off player’s backs — Franco, Leiter, Ventura, Alfonzo, McEwing and so on — and remembers when those stitches were still in his hands. Those are his marks.
“I love to watch the games and be like, ‘I did that!’ ” Gompers said. “It’s the team I grew up with, so I am having the time of my life.”