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Friday, July 4, 2008

It's a Numbers Game

Jim Cryns on Sports

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I completely understand the retirement of uniform numbers. I respect the dignity and overall gesture embodied in the ceremony, especially in the case of players of historical significance like Jackie Robinson. His courageous entry into the exclusively white Wonder Bread ranks of professional baseball preceded the heroics of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King by decades. Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was instrumental in breaking the racial barrier. While his primary motive may or may not have been getting one of the best players in the world on his team, Rickey’s reasons are incidental. His ultimate actions are what mean so much more.

Lou Gehrig was the first Major League player to have his number retired in 1939. Since Gehrig’s number was put into dry-dock with the Yankees, 120 subsequent players have been the recipient of the honor, their numbers put on permanent layaway with their respective teams. In 1997, Major League Baseball did the right thing and ensured no future player on any major league team could wear #42, Robinson’s number. Those wearing the number in 1997 didn’t have the number ripped off their backs. Instead, those wearing #42 were given a pass and grandfathered until they moved on. Former Brewer Scott Karl was one of the players grand-fathered, along with Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, Jose Lima of the Astros and Mo Vaughn of the Red Sox.

Some teams are so enamored with the pomp and circumstance involved in putting a number on ice, they retire a number a couple of times, like the Yankees and #8 for Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. The Cardinals retired #42 for Bruce Sutter in 2006. The defunct Expos, not to be outdone, retired #5 for both Rusty Staub and Andre Dawson, getting a bigger bang for the number’s golden years.

Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench was the recipient of a rather tainted #5 with the Cincinnati Reds. The story goes like this: In 1940, Reds catcher Willard Hershberger committed suicide during the season. The Reds thought it a good idea to pay tribute to him by retiring his number ‘5.’ After a bit of number-retirement remorse, it was 'unretired' in 1942, and ultimately retired again for Bench. Yeah, I’d say that was a rather stigmatized number, but it worked for Bench.

I’m not sure if I ever saw Roberto Clemente play in Wrigley Field, but I always recall having reverence for the guy, his speed, his class, his arm. Some believe Clemente's impact on the Hispanic community is equal to that of Robinson's on the black community, and they retired #21 in honor of Clemente, who met his untimely demise in a plane crash on a charity mission.

As players today spend more time thinking about their 401K and endorsement deals, and less about team loyalty, baseball franchises will in turn will have less of an opportunity to retire a number with a team. Players bolt at the first agreeable deal (Francisco Cordero), and throw the old jersey in the clubhouse hamper before the sweat-stains dry. Some players maintain the retirement of a number means more than the Hall of Fame, but that may be apocryphal.

By number, at least one through 10, let’s take a look at a few retired jerseys of some of baseball’s notables. Pee Wee Reese and his #1 was retired by the Dodgers. While I don’t know much about Reese’s career, his name pops up enough for me to believe he deserved the honor. Billy Martin had #1 retired with the Yankees. Again, I know more about his managerial career and antics with George Steinbrenner, but I’ll take the Yankees word on his deservedness.

The beareres of #2 include Nellie Fox of the White Sox and Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers. Both of those make sense, Lasorda’s number was retired as a manager rather than as a player. Babe Ruth’s #3 is a no-brainer, but Dale Murphy and Harold Baines? That seems a stretch.

Paul Molitor has one thing in common with Lou Gehrig, the #4. Molitor’s digit is set in neon above the outfield at MillerPark. Brooks Robinson with #5. OK, George Brett, I’ll buy that, Jeff Bagwell? The jury is still out on that one.

Steve Garvey, Al Kaline and Stan Musial with #6. As Big Bird on “

Sesame Street
” might sing, ‘one of these three is not like the other.’ Mickey Mantle with #7? Hard to disagree with that one.

The retirement of #8 seems to make the most sense out of the numbers we’ve covered: Willie Stargell, Joe Morgan, previously mentioned Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey, Carl Yastrzemski, Cal Ripken Jr. and Gary Carter, whose number has since been ‘unretired.’

Ted Williams, Roger Maris and Reggie Jackson are among the illustrious names who wore #9 and had that number retired. As David Lettermen might say, ‘rounding out our top ten, with #10 are the Cubs’ Ron Santo, Phil Rizzuto, Sparky Anderson.

This trend continues in other sports like basketball and the NBA. Michael Jordan’s #23 hit the rafters in a ceremony, only to have it yanked down by the legend when he returned a couple of years later. Jordan actually switched to his old #23 during his comeback, snubbing his nose at the honor to ostensibly regain his playing confidence and win three more championships. If that’s all it took to win a championship, Herb Kohl would have his players change jerseys at halftime.

Unlike their Major League brethren, the NFL hands out retired numbers like manhole covers. In 2005, the Green Bay Packers took Reggie White’s #92 off the docket—this marked only the fifth number retirement in almost a hundred years. All five Packers players to have their number retired are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including White, a first-ballot entry in the Class of 2006. Recently retired Brett Favre and his #4 reportedly will be retired this season, a surprise to nobody. Other Packer players who have had their number retired include #3, Tony Canadeo, #14 Don Hutson, #15 Bart Starr, #66 Ray Nitschke.

You may agree with a team’s decision to retire a number, conversely you may believe the player didn’t do enough to warrant the honor. That’s what makes sports great, agreeing to disagree.

Sometimes the numbers add up, some times they don’t.

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