NEW YORK -- Standing apart from its countless cousins, the number has no distinction, no sex appeal. It is neither round, nor prime. It's odd, but hardly unusual. It lacks the rhythm of repetition that thirty-three, seventy-seven and ninety-nine give us. And it has neither connotation, like the satanic 666 or the hexed 13, nor a readily recognized partner -- 23 and skidoo, '57 and Chevy or 76 and trombones. It is as non-descript as it is non-divisible, as vanilla as can be.

Except within the confines of Shea Stadium and the memories of those who have cared about the Mets. There, No. 41 has context, and it stands in a most exalted position. There, it has the strongest identity, distinction and meaning.

There, within the walls of the ballpark that soon will de-commissioned and then demolished, No. 41 is No. 1. There, it means Tom Seaver.

With apologies to none of his colleagues or those who have played since he made his final pitch, Seaver is the ulti-Met. He is first, foremost and most famous. If the Mets were asked to participate in the opening ceremonies parade at the Olympics, he would carry their flag, probably the 1969 World Series champions' banner. No one else would be considered.

Almost a quarter century of baseball has passed since Seaver threw his final pitch as the Mets' No. 41, and no one has challenged his ranking. None of the 846 others who have played for the franchise has achieved so much as during his Mets tenure. And among all former and current Mets, only Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Rickey Henderson and Mike Piazza can claim to have had careers comparable to Seaver's.

The array of uniform numbers displayed above the left-field wall at Shea tells the story of Seaver's place in the club history. Four Mets numbers are there, retired, removed from circulation. No. 42 is retired throughout the game to recognize the social significance of Jackie Robinson. No. 37 is retired for Casey Stengel, the old man who managed and marketed the team through its stumbling infancy. No. 14 is retired to honor Gil Hodges, Seaver's first manager and the primary non-player force in the team's grand success of 1969.

And Seaver's 41 is there, retired and revered, only for what he accomplished as a player.

Keith Hernandez had a great impact when he joined the Mets in 1983. Indeed, the Mets won more often with Hernandez energizing them than they had when Seaver was pitching every fifth day. And Piazza had great impact as well. But neither changed the Mets as Seaver had. He altered the DNA of the franchise. He became The Franchise.

Farewell Shea Stadium

The Mets made a Miracle in 1969. Hodges and Seaver provided the will. Seaver showed them the way, producing a signature season for the franchise. With all that he, Piazza, Hernandez, Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Howard Johnson, David Cone, Gary Carter, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado have achieved in other Mets seasons, nothing compares with what Seaver produced in 1969:

A franchise-record 25 victories; the National League Cy Young Award, the second major award won by a Mets player -- Seaver had been the 1968 Rookie of the Year; the Sports Illustrated "Sportsman of the Year" award; a runner-up finish -- to Willie McCovey -- in the Most Valuable Player Award balloting; his aptly-named Imperfect game. And all of that came wrapped in the franchise's first pennant and World Series banners.

"And it was all downhill from there," Seaver once said with a smile meant to belie his candor. There can be only one first.

"Nothing can compare with the first time," he said.

Downhill perhaps, but it hardly was a steep decline. Two more Cy Young Awards and runner-up finishes followed. And, despite being exiled to Cincinnati in 1977, being kidnapped by the White Sox in 1984, and spending 8 1/2 seasons away from Shea, Seaver still holds the Mets records for victories (198), ERA (2.57), shutouts (44), strikeouts (2,541), complete games (121), starts (395) and innings (3,045).

He had one of his spikes in the door of the Hall of Fame in June 1977, before the Mets showed him Shea's door and shoved him through it. His election in 1992, in his first year of eligibility and with the highest percentile vote ever, made him the only Cooperstown inductee depicted on his plaque wearing a Mets cap. A lesser pitcher at age 38, he nonetheless shut out the Phillies of Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt for six innings on three singles and a walk. He could go home again, if only for one season.

Seaver completed his career with 311 victories (now 18th all time), a 2.86 ERA and .603 winning percentage, 61 shutouts, 231 complete games, 3,640 strikeouts and Shea's eternal gratitude, respect and adoration.

His final day in uniform -- No. 41, of course -- was Oct. 27, 1986. He was an inactive member of the Red Sox roster the day the Mets won the World Series. He had gone home yet again.

"My first and last days were at Shea," he said years later. "Probably my best and worst, too."