Designating the player of the century -- sort of
Yankees' countdown to triple-digit uniform numbers is under way
The death of George Steinbrenner made for a truce, one The Boss probably would have favored. Joe Torre was invited back to Yankee Stadium in September -- and most of those who had gathered to salute Steinbrenner before the Yankees' game against the Rays embraced him in a manner commensurate with his accomplishments in the Bronx. Whether all the "right words" spoken about the former manager that night were genuine is another issue. But the olive branch was, and is, in place.
So now, the Yankees can bring Torre to an Old Timers' Day and someday officially put his No. 6 in mothballs, not to mention Monument Park.
Torre's impact on baseball's flagship franchise was undeniable. And the bright reflections off the four World Series rings his Yankees teams earned ought to obscure whatever the perceived misdemeanors were that prompted the club to ignore him until the ballpark ceremonies for Steinbrenner on Sept. 20.
Far more likely is retirement of the Yankees' No. 2, worn and distinguished for 15 years by Derek Jeter. A three-year chaser is now in place.
And then, unless the club embraces the theory espoused by the late George Carlin -- that a whole number exists between 6 and 7 -- the Yankees will have achieved single-digit bingo: No. 1, Billy Martin; No. 2, Jeter; No. 3, Babe Ruth; No. 4, Lou Gehrig; No. 5, Joe DiMaggio; No. 6, Torre; No. 7 Mickey Mantle; No. 8, Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey; and No. 9, Roger Maris.
Then what? On to double digits, of course.
But eight of those remaining 90 numbers have already been retired by the Yankees: 10 for Phil Rizzuto, 15 for Thurman Munson, 16 for Whitey Ford, 23 for Don Mattingly, 32 for Elston Howard, 37 for Casey Stengel, 44 for Reggie Jackson and 49 for Ron Guidry.
Moreover, the club's 42 is already in semi-retirement, something akin to Brett Favre. The great Mo wears it now, and it unquestionably will be retired in his honor someday. It already has been set aside as the game's enduring salute to Jackie Robinson.
How long before Rich Gossage's 54 and Bernie Williams' 51 will be mothballed in the Bronx? Will Jorge Posada's 20 warrant consideration? Will the Yankees recognize the contributions of Bob Sheppard with a number? Which number symbolizes dignity? And it is hardly inconceivable that the club will find some numerical means of honoring Steinbrenner.
The Angels have retired No. 26 for Gene Autry. Their beloved late owner was identified as the team's 26th man. Steinbrenner would command -- or demand from the afterlife -- something higher, perhaps 27 for the World Series championship of 2009, the final one of his life.
Or, it could be No. 74 -- in recognition of the date of birth, July 4, that made The Boss bust his red, white and blue buttons.
And if the Yankees sense they need a sellout sometime in, say, 2048, they might retire No. 98 for the team that won 125 games 50 years earlier.
The latter possibilities -- and some Olympian conclusion jumping -- bring us to the primary question in this exercise in numerological honoring and foresight. Will a club ever need to assign a triple-digit number to a big league player?
It's not a question anyone considered in 1916 when the Indians became the first team to wear numbers, or in 1929 when the Yankees are said to have become the first club to adopt numbers as permanent parts of their on-field attire. But it is a question -- a century or two premature -- that can be asked with the knowledge that an answer may someday be required if the practice of retiring numbers continues. Moreover, it is a question that probably will be posed first to the Yankees, given their lead in retired numbers -- they have 15, excluding 42 -- and the likelihood that Torre's, Jeter's and Gossage's integers will be decommissioned, and Steinbrenner double-digited, as well. The Cardinals and Dodgers are next on the list with 10 retired numbers each.
Beware: Available single and double-digit uniform number are moving, albeit slowly, toward endangered species status throughout the game -- not that anyone else is counting.
Consider: Who better than the Yankees to pioneer three-digit numbers? Their franchise, above all others, would make it cool to be the first player to go beyond the glass ceiling established by Wayne Gretzky, George Mikan, Warren Sapp, Turk Wendell, Manny Ramirez and Barbara Feldon. The Yankees can sell salt water to sailors. They would make No. 100-something quite marketable and, of course, profitable.
Assuming the franchise holds to the values of The Boss, the Yankees are 99-1 favorites to be first to 100 and make the leap before it becomes necessary. Moreover, they already have a 65 (Phil Hughes) and a 62 (Joba Chamberlain) assigned to prominent players.
All of which leads unavoidably to other questions: Which player -- Yankee or not -- would be comfortable wearing a three-digit number? What type of player would be willing to accept the challenge and live with what now is considered a scarlet numeral?
Players who have worn three-digit uniforms in Spring Training have done so reluctantly. Three-digits constitute a label, something tantamount to wearing an "I've got no shot" inscription on a cap or "Kick me" on their sliding pads.
A number of players of the game's loosey-goosey species, who might have welcomed the distinction, have come and gone. Wendell clearly was a candidate. His willingness to wear 99 with the Mets said so. He wasn't one to conform, witness his incessant tooth brushing and the animal-teeth necklace he proudly wore. His preference was for No. 13, but Edgardo Alfonzo wanted to keep it. So Wendell was assigned No. 10, unusual for a pitcher. And when he asked why, the response was "Well, what number do you want?"
"I don't know ... 99," Wendell said in the summer. "And that was it. Some people thought it was cool. Some thought I was nuts."
A few months later, he continued the thought: "One hundred would be just a little cooler or make me a little more nuts. But I'd wear it, sure."
From what the world knows of other free spirits -- such as Roger McDowell, Phil Linz, Kevin Millar, Dock Ellis, Steve Lyons, Don "Stan the Man Unusual" Stanhouse, Jose Lima, Sparky Lyle and Mark Fidrych -- one of them might have embraced the opportunity be the first three-digit player.
The idea appealed to Jerry Reuss, the retired Dodgers, Pirates and Cardinals pitcher and man given to independent thinking.
"I've been retired for 20 years, so it's been 30 years since I was crazy," Reuss said last month. "But when I was playing, I wouldn't have had anything against it. When guys started wearing 99, someone asked me if I would. I said, 'Sure.' He asked, 'Why?' and I said 'Because I couldn't get 100.'"
"It would have been a distinction. You know, they wear three-digit numbers in Japan and nothing bad happens to players who do. One thing, if I were going to do it, I wouldn't want to be No. 100. I'd take 619. June 19 is my birthday."
But the first three-digit player probably ought to wear No. 100 even. It would have been easy to imagine Millar prancing about, declaring himself the inaugural member of the team of the century. El Duque, were he of a mind to come clean, could have worn his triple-digit age; Steve Stone, his career batting average; and John Kruk, his career home run total.
How about Aroldis Chapman setting the numerical bar at 100 -- or higher -- to match his velocity?
Consider the endorsement possibilities, Reuss did. "Wonder Bread helps build strong bodies 100 ways," 100 Flushes toilet bowl cleaner, 100 Roses bourbon, 100 Mule Team Borax. And some enterprising brewery could hire the first 100-wearing guy to sing "A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hundred bottles of beer ..."
The Yankees usually are a step ahead in finding new sources of revenue. They're probably planning already -- 65 and counting.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.