Feature photo courtesy of MB27, Wikipedia.
Retiring numbers is a sacred tradition in North American sports, an honor reserved for a franchise’s best and most meaningful players and managers.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be, which is why I was a little annoyed with the New York Yankees’ doubling down on the ceremonies this weekend, retiring Jorge Posada’s No. 20 on Saturday and Andy Pettitte’s No. 46 on Sunday.
I don’t mean to pick on Posada and Pettitte, who were both very good players and important components of the Yankees’ dynasty in the late 1990’s, contributing to New York’s 2009 title as well. Those two, along with Bernie Williams (whose No. 51 was retired this spring), simply put faces on the problem I have with the Yankees’ jersey retirement practices.
In my opinion, the Yankees are too eager to retire numbers. The numbers of 21 Yankees have been retired so far, excluding the league-mandated retirement of Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 and Derek Jeter’s No. 2, which has not been honored yet but certainly will be sometime in the future.
Many a punchline has been delivered about the Yankees one day becoming the first team to distribute jerseys with triple digits on the back. When the highest honor a team can bestow on a player becomes a running joke, that franchise has done something wrong.
The Yankees have a tremendous history, likely the most iconic in all of North American sports, and many of the players they’ve honored were beyond deserving. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mariano Rivera immediately come to mind.
Those guys are bona fide Hall of Famers, first ballot, no doubt about it. (Well, you would think. Let’s ignore that Ford and Berra were second balloters, DiMaggio needed three after his career officially ended and Gehrig was a special induction.) Williams was kicked off the ballot in his second year after receiving just 3.3 percent of the vote. Posada and Pettitte will surely ignite some debate, but they’re both long shots for Cooperstown as well.
Not that Hall of Fame worthiness equals jersey retirement worthiness for all teams across the sports landscape, but with the Yankees’ pedigree, by now it should. (And they should have Hall-worthy careers as Yankees. Reggie Jackson’s No. 44 doesn’t need to be retired in New York, even with his October theatrics.)
My advice to the Yankees, and all teams, is to use caution when deciding whether to retire a number. Think of the awkward situation the Chicago Bears are in. When the Bears retired Mike Ditka’s No. 89 in 2013, it came with the note that it would be the last taken out of circulation.
With 14 numbers off limits, the Bears have the most in the NFL, and were simply running out of options for their active players. Because Chicago was so liberal with the honor in the past, a legend like Brian Urlacher will never get the honor he actually deserves. No one’s willing to unretire the number of a less worthy player, so Urlacher misses out.
That’s not always the end of the world, either. It can be kind of cool seeing new players wear the numbers of previous personnel. It takes fans back to the past and can summon some positive nostalgia.
Linebacker Otis Wilson was a two-time All-Pro and an important piece of the Bears’ Super Bowl-winning defense, but older fans of the team are likely happier that number wasn’t retired because it means All-Pro linebacker Lance Briggs gets to conjure memories of those better times by also wearing No. 55.
Seeing some random player wear Urlacher’s No. 54 is going to be tough one day because it will be difficult to match up to the icon, but that’s exactly why teams need to choose wisely. Decide which players were very good and which were unmatched, and retire the numbers of the unmatched.
Besides, there are plenty of other ways to honor former players. Many teams have individual Hall of Fames they can induct players into without retiring their jerseys. The Yankees have had an annual Old-Timers’ Day for 69 years, and it draws a ton of previous fan favorites to the park to play an exhibition game.
They also have Monument Park, where players like Tino Martinez, Goose Gossage, Willie Randolph and Paul O’Neill have been honored without their numbers being retired. Those players still received pre-game ceremonies so fans could shower them with cheers of adoration.
Even something as simple as dedicating a day to a former player works. This weekend, the Marlins held Juan Pierre and Dontrelle Willis Day, where Pierre was given a pre-game ceremony and presented with a painting of himself (Willis couldn’t make it, because something always goes wrong for the Marlins these days). Pierre spent only four seasons with the Marlins and Willis was there for five, but they played significant roles on the 2003 World Series team, and ownership wanted to thank them for that.
And I want to thank the Marlins for showing restraint. Teams shouldn’t retire numbers as a way to inflate their self-worth and create a sense of a proud tradition they don’t have. Despite their mostly miserable history and no championships, the Astros have retired nine numbers. Three are deserved: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Nolan Ryan. (Interestingly enough, Biggio had his No. 7 retired a second time by the Astros this weekend. I couldn’t find anything that addresses why he needed a second ceremony.)
As mentioned before, the Yankees certainly have a proud history. They just don’t need to retire the number of every player who was a top five contributor to a title team. The jersey retirement starts to lose its meaning if every player gets his uniform hanging from the crowded rafters.