Friday, February 15, 2008


I wasn't aware that there was some expectation that a good-but-not-great player like Paul O'Neill's number would be retired, but apparently there was:

Paul O’Neill did not sound perturbed about the Yankees taking his No. 21 out of storage and giving it to Morgan Ensberg this spring, but he did sound perplexed. The Yankees had not issued No. 21 to a player since ’Neill retired in 2001 . . . With Joe Torre’s No. 6 and Bernie Williams’s No. 51 likely to be retired and Derek Jeter’s 2 and Mariano Rivera’s 42 (which is already retired to honor Jackie Robinson) never to be worn again, the Yankees decided to bring 21 back.

I've always thought retiring numbers was kind of a neat thing -- I was at the game in 1980 when Al Kaline's number 6 was retired and thought it was cool -- but the Yankees obviously have to put a stop to it lest they run out of numbers.

Then again, why do players even wear numbers anymore? The original point of uniform numbers was to identify players. This was fairly useful back when there were no jumbotron close-ups, lineups on the scoreboard, television, baseball cards, and Fathead posters. These days, whether we are at home or in the stadium, we have no excuse not to know exactly who is up to bat and who is playing each position. We know every nook and cranny of our favorite players' faces (and, unfortunately, other parts). In short, the need to identify these guys by a number is more or less nonexistent.

Today, player numbers are nothing more than talismans. I'm not invested in their obliteration or anything, but I think it would be kind of cool if some team tried to get rid of them altogether, replacing them with a logo or some sort of team or city commemorative graphic or something.

The only hesitation I would have is that all of that un-utilized real estate would probably hasten the introduction of on-jersey advertising.


Monkey said...

While numbers might not be important to some, they are extremely important to people who cannot (or have a poor time) recognizing faces. I can't pick a face out of a crowd if my life depended on it.

The other day, my sister sent me a picture of her at a bowling alley with Daryl Strawberry and I couldn't tell who he was until she told me. Numbers are the way that I access the game. As a result, I think that their continuing presence in sports is helpful to myself and many others.

Jason said...

As a Yanks fan (don't shoot me), I was surprised they gave #21 to Ensberg. I was figuring they'd save it for one of the highly touted youngsters to "inherit". Something along the lines of 'keeping Paulie's spirit' going for a while. Lame, perhaps, but the Yanks have been embracing this part of their history for ever.

I still think one of their young OF prospects (Tabata perhaps) will someday patrol RF donning #21 in memory of the water-cooler-basher.

yes, it's silly, but it's OUR silly therefore we love it. You can have your silly and we'll have ours.

Brian said...

An argument can be made that after Jeter and Mariano, O'Neill was the most loved Yankee from the team's "Dynasty" era. That's whyYankee fans assumed the number would be retired. Everyone loved him and they've held the number back for so long.

An O'Neill aside...his 1/2 inning long goodbye ovation during the top of the 9th of Game 5 of the 2001 World Series was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. That's a perfect display of how much NY fans loved him, and why they'd think his number would be retired.

Anonymous said...

Is there any rule against using 3 digit (or more) numbers...I mean if the Yanks run out of numbers, can someone use number 142?

Justin Zeth said...

The thing is, you have to ask yourself how that's going to look 30 years from now, when the younger generation, who won't know who Paul O'Neill is until they've looked him up, are going to look at that and say, "Why the hell did they retire Paul O'Neill's number? He had seven nice years with them. So what?"

It's one more symptom of a sporting world where even the mediocre players (to say nothing of the genuinely good ones, like O'Neill was) were the superstar of every team they ever played on growing up and are accustomed to having the universe revolve around them. Every suggestion that the universe does not, in fact, revolve around them, they bristle at, and that gets especially bad after they've retired and the spotlight is no longer naturally on them. I'm not saying it's right or should be accepted, but you have to understand that any man that enjoys a relatively long major league career has been, as a simple matter of nature, the center of the world they live in since, like, age eight.

Paul O'Neill: You were a good player on a great team. You were not a great player. You don't deserve to have your number retired any more than, say, Eric Karros does. Live with it.

PONCH said...

The Reds should retire O'Neill's number based soley on the fact that he once kept a runner on third by kicking a ball in to second.

Roger Moore said...

The Yankees would have an easier time eliminating numbers on their uniforms if they would take the new-fangled step of putting players names on them. If they're unwilling to go even that far, they're going to have a real problem with anything as radical as replacing the numbers with something else. Besides, before any baseball team could get rid of them they'd have to get rid of Rule 1.11(a)(1):

All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs.

I also think that you're too quick to dismiss the talismanic importance of numbers. Team sports are selling their fans mythos as much as competition. As silly as it sounds, numbers have become an important part of that mythos. A player's number is part of his identity. Young players dream of wearing their idols' numbers. Fans want replica uniforms with their favorite players' numbers. Authors even write books arguing about which player was the greatest ever to wear a given uniform. Teams don't want to give that up- especially the part about fans buying numbered replica uniforms.

Mike said...

I never heard any discussion of O'Neil's number being retired until very recently. I think that assumption was developing because the Yankees never assigned his number to another ballplayer. That decision probably out of respect for what O'Neil did for the Yankees, but one shouldn't assume that means they had any plans of retiring the number forever. The Yankees probably heard the growing speculation and decided to end it by assigning O'Neil's number to a new player this year. He's been retired for seven years, so they've certainly given him his respect.

O'Neil obviously was a very popular Yankee who played hard, was well-liked by the fans and his team, and was a very good ballplayer on some great teams. If the Yankees, however, start retiring the numbers of the very good and the very popular, well, they're going to run out of numbers! I'm not saying you have to be a MLB HOFer to be worthy of a retired number (Don Mattingly and Ron Guidry certainly earned their retired numbers), but O'Neil falls short.

Jeter and Rivera will have their numbers retired, as will A-Rod many a year from now. Joe Torre, too. Bernie? Hmmm...he may represent the equivalent of Guidry as a hitter, so he probably will have his number retired. The one to wonder about is Posada. He's very quietly put together one of the best runs of a catcher ever. He's obviously not in the all-time great class, but if he puts up another couple of top seasons, then he may have a shot himself.

There's one other that no one seems to mention. Don't know why. He's all in the news and everything. :-) Roger Clemens. What happens if he does make the HOF one day. Won't the Yankees (and the Red Sox) HAVE to retire his number?

Mike said...

When it comes to retiring numbers, the Tigers have a policy of only retiring numbers of their Hall of Famers (Willie Horton being the only exception).

The numbers of greats from the '80s -- Jack Morris, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell -- are unofficially out of circulation; the clubhouse guy doesn't offer them to new players.

Things got out of whack in that regard last year when Gary Sheffield asked Trammell's permission to wear his #3. Of course Tram had no problem with it. So now it's only Morris's #47 and Whitaker's #1 that are moth balled.