About 10 years ago, Russ Gompers, who owned a small stitching and embroidery shop in Queens, came home to find a panicked message on his answering machine. It was his friend Steve Cohen, a local sporting goods retailer for whom Gompers sometimes embroidered softball uniforms. "Russ, there's been an emergency!" he said. "Call me at this number …"
When Gompers dialed, he reached the office of Charlie Samuels, the equipment manager of the New York Mets. The team had just called up an infielder from the minors and needed a jersey with the new player's name and number. The Mets' usual stitcher had gone AWOL and Samuels was desperate for a replacement. "If you guys take care of me on this," he said, "I'll give you all my business!"
And that's how Gompers, a former trucker, ended up stitching and embroidering his favorite team's jerseys. He's still giddy and unjaded about his important behind-the-scenes role, like a little kid with a permanent trip to fantasy camp. "The Mets aren't actually a big part of my business, dollar-wise," he says, "but in terms of prestige and credibility, man, it's the best! I get to go to any game I want, I get a good seat, I got to go to Japan when the Mets played there in 2000—I love it!"
Gompers' shop, Stitches, is located in Whitestone, about a five-minute drive from Shea Stadium. It's not a big place, about the size of a large garage, but the buzz and hum of assorted embroidery machines makes it feel like a small factory. The machines are usually busy creating logos on caps for local athletic leagues or embroidering jackets for nearby businesses, while the stitching for the Mets' uniforms takes place in a room in the back, where several workers are bent over sewing machines.
During an impromptu tour of the facility, Gompers introduces an employee. "This is Mikey," he says. "He designed the 'Ya Gotta Believe' sleeve embroidery that the Mets are wearing in honor of Tug McGraw this season." Asked what this entailed, Gompers deadpans, "It entailed typing 'Y-a G-o-t-t-a B-e-l-i-e-v-e' into a computer and pressing the start button. Ha!"
Gompers' job goes beyond stitching names and numbers on jerseys. He's embroidered Mike Piazza's uniform number onto his chest protector, and he designed the Sept. 11 memorial sleeve embroidery that the Mets wore in 2002. His biggest job requirement, though, is to be on call at all times. "Things can get a little hairy, especially during spring training or around the trading deadline," he says. "There are times when Charlie's called me at 2 in the morning, or from the dugout in Pittsburgh, telling me they made a trade and need me to make a jersey and put it on a plane. The quickest one was when the Mets got Cory Lidle. They called me late at night and were gonna be in Houston the next day. So, I had to go to Shea at 6 in the morning to get a blank jersey, get that shirt sewn, bring it to LaGuardia, get it on a plane, and have it waiting for them in Houston for Lidle to wear that night."
Doing work for a team while it's traveling, as Gompers does, is unusual—most teams simply use the host team's stitcher when they're on the road. Gompers often does work for teams that come to play the Mets. "One time around the trade deadline, the Dodgers were in town, and they got Mark Grudzielanek," he recalls. "Their equipment guy was panicking, worrying that his jersey wasn't gonna be done right because his name has so many letters. And Charlie said, 'Don't worry, my guy's the best, it'll be fine.' "
Working with other teams has convinced Gompers that the Mets, despite their recent on-field foibles, are among the league leaders in uniform standards. "The Mets are actually a very high-class organization when it comes to this stuff. If a Mets player gets a hole in his pants, it goes in the garbage. There are teams that come here with, like, 20 rips in the pants, and I fix them."
Gompers is privy to all sorts of these little details. Uni Watch was surprised to learn, for example, that some players like to have their socks sewn directly onto their pant legs, creating a de facto leotard. "We do that for Mike Stanton," says Gompers. "Roberto Alomar liked that, too. Plus Alomar had us sew his uniform number onto the tongue of his cleats, and we were doing it all the time because if he went 0-for-4, he'd throw his cleats away and use a new pair! Some guys, like Kaz Matsui or Matt Galante, the third base coach, they're short, so we have to taper their shirt so it doesn't blouse so much and cut about two inches off the bottom so it isn't too long."
Because of his stitching duties, Gompers is often among the first to know when a trade has been made. On a few occasions, when the media has gotten wind of a deal before it's been officially announced, team officials have even accused him of leaking the details. But Gompers says he'd never divulge anything that would jeopardize his job. "I like—no, I love—that if I go to Shea, I hear people saying, 'That guy does work for the Mets.' I get a high off of that, to tell you the truth. It makes me feel important. And really, who the hell am I? I'm just this guy from Queens."