Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Retired Number Debate...Again

Once again, the topic of retired numbers came up and after having some time to think it over, I decided to weigh in.

For those out of the loop, the Yankees had not issued Paul O'Neill's number 21 since "The Warrior" (yes, I'm calling him that. Sue me.) retired after the 2001 season. Finally, Morgan Ensberg was given the number this spring. Early on there was a buzz about anybody daring to wear a number that had come to be so strongly identified with somebody else. When Ensberg made the team, he opted to switch to 11 - feeling that he wasn't worthy of wearing 21.

Enter LaTroy Hawkins. By all accounts, Hawkins is a great guy - the kind you want as a teammate. The rub is that he is a middling reliever; one whom critics thought shouldn't have been signed in the first place. Hawkins' heart was in the right place - he wanted to honor Roberto Clemente, who wore 21 with the Pirates. Yet as soon as he was introduced on Opening Night, the boos began. A few nights later Hawkins got lit up and the chants began.

"Paul O'Neill!" Clap Clap Clap Clap Clap "Paul O'Neill!"

I was there and as usual, I was mortified. The guy meant no harm, yet the damage was done. It took a few weeks but finally, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Derek Jeter - the holdovers from the O'Neill years - told Hawkins that the number wasn't worth the pain. Hawkins gave in and changed his number to 22.

Incidentally, Hawkins has worn 32 in some of his other career stops. Thirty-two is retired for the late Elston Howard.

So here we are again, faced with the discussion of retired numbers. Only the Boston Celtics are as over-the-top on this issue (22 numbers to the Yankees current 16). The Yankees have overdone it, and some have even suggested un-retiring some numbers.

Dumb. In fact, stupid. I wouldn't agree with that.

Others have said that there needs to be standards (Hall of Famer and so on). Again, I don't agree. Sometimes a player just hits the right note (Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly).

So let's look at it again. First - I don't think O'Neill's number should be retired, yet I liked that it hadn't been issued since Paulie left. It was only a matter of time before somebody else would get it, yet my thinking was that it would be somebody of some standing. That's no disrespect to to either Ensberg or Hawkins, but that somebody needed to be a star player with "the onions" to withstand the possible abuse of wearing 21.

Let's do it this way: there are the no-brainers (3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 16). I think we can assume that number 2 (Derek Jeter) will be a no-brainer. He will be, if not already is, the best shortstop in team history.

I think we're OK so far.

Next up are the people's choices and sympathy votes (1, 9, 23, 32, 37, 44, 49). Face it, Billy Martin (1) was a note of "I'm sorry" by George Steinbrenner for the idiocy that occurred during the Billy years. Roger Maris (9) was put aside to make up for the poor treatment that Raj received from the press, fans, and the team during his epic 61 in '61 and after. Twenty-three is Donnie Baseball. Not a Hall of Famer but aguy who struck a Mantle-like note in popularity. Elston Howard's 32 is as much about politics as anything else. I get it. Casey Stengel (37) was a great manager who was fired for borderline age-discrimination. Retiring his number was to make peace, and bring him back from the Mets, who also retired his number (though I'm not sure why).

Anyway, don't get me started on Reggie Jackson (44), and while I love Ron Guidry (49), I'm still baffled why his number was retired.

That leaves the one number retired due to death (15 for Thurman Muunson). Honestly, and this will hurt, but his number doesn't get retired without his sad passing on August 2, 1979. Don't get me wrong - I loved him also as a player.

Then there's the up-and-comers. I've already mentioned 2 for Jeter. What about Joe Torre's 6, Jorge Posada's 20, Bernie Williams' 51, and Mariano Rivera's 42? Rivera's out of the conversation, thanks to the still-idiotic-in-my-opinion retiring of Jackie Robinson's 42 league-wide in 1997.

Again, is Babe Ruth's number three retired league-wide? Didn't think so. Next argument. So with the retiring of 42 to Robinson, I have no leg to stand on with 32 for Elston Howard. I wouldn't retire it, but I get the socio-political ramifications here.

Back to the numbers that are expected to go. I already said I wouldn't retire 21. So...I'm not retiring 20 for Posada and (sorry, gang...take a deep breath), I am not retiring Bernie's 51. This franchise was reborn when O'Neill came along in 1992. If I'm not hanging up 21, then I'm not giving in on 51.

Again, sue me.

So in my world, here are my Yankees retired numbers:

* Babe Ruth - 3
* Derek Jeter - 2 (let's assume)
* Lou Gehrig - 4
* Joe DiMaggio - 5
* Mickey Mantle - 7
* Yogi Berra - 8
* Bill Dickey - 8
* Roger Maris - 9 (a special case)
* Thurman Munson - 15 (the guy was the Yankees' heart and soul. Again, special case)
* Whitey Ford - 16
* Don Mattingly - 23 (tough choice, but I know what he meant when there was so little to cheer about)
* Elston Howard - 32 (politics. I understand)
* Mariano Rivera - 42

There you go. You may call me crazy, those of you who love Billy Martin, Joe Torre, Phil Rizzuto, Casey Stengel (no Torre? No Old Professor), Reggie Jackson, and Ron Guidry. This is why there is a Monument Park, and I often think that it's under-utilized. That's where I hope Bobby Murcer will get honored, but would I ever - EVER - think of retiring his number? Good God, no!

Here ends the discussion. For now.

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