Last week, the Yankees announced that later this season, they would be honoring Joe Torre, Goose Gossage, Paul O'Neill, and Tino Martinez with plaques in Monument Park in addition to retiring Torre's number 6. While a nice honor for these former contributors to championship teams, some fans, including myself, were a bit perplexed as to why they would choose to honor Martinez. Sure, Torre was skipper for baseball's most successful and prolonged championship stretch since the '50s, Gossage was a Hall of Fame closer who spent the majority of his time with the Yankees, and O'Neill was a four-time All-Star who played nine seasons in pinstripes while the Yankees went from also-rans to champions. Martinez, though?
While a fine player who hit 192 homers in pinstripes (17th all-time), Tino only made the All-Star team once in his seven years with the Yankees and was generally just an overall decent first baseman during an era of inflated hitting statistics anyway. His 15.8 fWAR and 114 wRC+ rank behind somewhat-forgettable players like Ryan Klesko and Mark Grace among first basemen from 1996-2001. He was a four-time champion who had a couple big playoff moments, like the go-ahead grand slam in the opener of the '98 World Series and the unforgettable game-tying two-run homer with the Yankees down to their last out in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series, but overall, he sported a forgettable .672 OPS in postseason play.
Furthermore, there are numerous other players in Yankees history who should probably receive plaques before Tino. Even ignoring very recent retirees Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, whose times will surely come soon, and Bernie Williams who will be honored in 2015, there's Willie Randolph, Roy White, Graig Nettles, and six Hall of Fame players who, like Gossage, entered Cooperstown wearing a Yankee hat (Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, Earle Combs, Jack Chesbro, Waite Hoyt, and Herb Pennock). Several other former players would seem to have decent cases before Martinez, as well. So why should Tino get the nod?
The only way I could understand honoring Tino with a plaque without honoring all of these other players is if there is a grand transition in order involving Monument Park. For decades, historic franchises like the Yankees built team Halls of Fames without this grand overarching haughtiness that George Steinbrenner maintained about how only "true Yankee legends" or whatever could be honored in Monument Park with plaques or retired numbers.
Team Halls of Fame make a ton of sense, as they're a way to celebrate the franchise's history without necessarily feeling obligated to retire numbers. Look at all the team Halls of Fame around baseball, and you'll see that there is no shame there in honoring their great players. A separation exists between the prestige of the team Halls of Fame and the retired numbers. For instance, the Red Sox Hall of Fame has honored 56 players, allowing them to honor some of Boston's favorite players while only granting seven players the ultimate honor of number retirement. The Orioles Hall of Fame has honored at least 60 players while retiring just six numbers.
Under Steinbrenner's watch, the grand importance of retiring a former Yankee's number was diluted; few of the other greats were honored with just plaques or in some way smaller than retiring a number. The Boss's interpretation of "true Yankee legends" was incredibly confusing. When Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973, here is everyone the Yankees had honored with a retired number:
Lou Gehrig (#4)
Babe Ruth (#3)
Joe DiMaggio (#5)
Mickey Mantle (#7)
Casey Stengel (#37)
Bill Dickey (#8)
Yogi Berra (#8)
Only six numbers were retired, and just three more figures had plaques--manager Miller Huggins, owner Jacob Ruppert, and GM Ed Barrow. At first, Steinbrenner tread carefully with how the Yankees honored their past. During his first 10 years, they made the obvious and understandable moves of retiring number 16 in '74 for Whitey Ford, their greatest pitcher in franchise history, giving arguably the best manager in baseball history, Joe McCarthy a plaque in '76, and honoring their tragically fallen captain, Thurman Munson, by retiring his number 15 and giving him a plaque.
Then in the '80s, it started to get screwy. In '84, the retired both Elston Howard's number 32 and Roger Maris's number 9. Howard made sense since he was such an important player to the team's history as both their first African-American and a nine-time All-Star, but giving Maris such an honor was odd. He set the single-season home run record and won a pair of MVPs but spent just seven seasons with the team. If the Yankees had immediately exercised a "team Hall of Fame" approach to Monument Park, they could have just given him a plaque and not retired his number. Hell, Nettles had been wearing number 9 for eleven years before he left at the end of '83 and they yanked it out of circulation.
The next year, they retired number 10 for Phil Rizzuto, another move that could be debated, though perhaps his 55 years of service to the organization as their best shortstop until Derek Jeter and a fan favorite broadcaster made it okay. (Plaques were also later given to broadcaster Mel Allen and public address announcer Bob Sheppard.) Manager Billy Martin's number 1 was retired in '86, which was clearly just a move made because Steinbrenner liked Martin despite their feuds and Martin's five firings. Martin was a bit infielder who played more than 120 games twice in his mere six and a half years as a player on the Yankees, and as a manager, he won just two pennants and one World Series. Again, if they wanted to honor him, they could have just given him a plaque. The franchise took this exact approach with Lefty Gomez and Allie Reynolds, two of their greatest pitchers, who were both only given plaques in '87 and '89, respectively.
That sensible approach was thrown out the window when Reggie Jackson's number 44 was retired in '93. Jackson was worse than Maris in that he only spent five years with the team, yet like Martin, he was given the ultimate honor just because "Big Stein" liked him. I realize I'm repeating myself, but after just giving plaques to Gomez and Reynolds, why reverse the trend by giving Jackson everything? Couldn't Reggie have just been given a plaque in a team Hall of Fame sense and have the Yankee be done with it? Don Mattingly and Ron Guidry were also both Boss favorites who could have been honored with plaques without retiring their numbers. It's not as though the Yankees had retired this practice--they did just that Red Ruffing, their greatest righthanded pitcher, in a long-overdue 2004 ceremony.
Alas, Monument Park got to a weird point. Only three players are honored in Monument Parks with just plaques--everyone else honored also had their number retired. Maybe if a more focused team Hall of Fame focus was approached, people wouldn't be as perturbed by the likes of Tino, O'Neill, and Goose receiving plaques. Maybe the Yankees would have then been okay with just giving Torre a plaque if Martin had just received a plaque. If the Yankees want to embrace a team Hall of Fame approach to Monument Park, then that's just fine, and honoring Tino in such a way would then make some sense.
However, it's unfortunate that the way Steinbrenner developed Monument Park made it so that the non-legends were either pushed aside or overrated to the point of unnecessarily retiring numbers. (Don't get me started on how Monument Park [Monument Cave?] appears so hastily stuffed under the restaurant in center field compared to its beautiful layout at the old Yankee Stadium.)
If a "Yankees Hall of Fame" had been established, then maybe we would already have seen All-Stars like Randolph and Nettles honored in addition to terrific historic players--not just the Hall of Famers who should be honored, but also Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, and more. They could even honor Bobby Murcer that way! If this is the way that Monument Park will now be evolving, that's excellent. I want to see the Yankees recognize these vital players. I can only hope so, because if they continue in the Boss's footsteps, then Tino's plaque will just appear quite undeserving compared to the forgotten greats of years past.