In the first installment of this series we saw that retiring numbers of past Yankee greats has become a trademark of the Steinbrenner family. If they choose not to retire Willie Randolph's number at their next retirement ceremony, they could certainly do worse than opting for Graig Nettles, or "Puff" as he has been affectionately known.
Die-hard Roger Maris fans may cry foul since both players wore number 9 and Maris had his retired in 1984, but a quick look at the retired numbers wall in Yankee Stadium reveals two number 8's for Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. So why not have two number 9's? Just like Maris, Nettles was a quietly great player for back-to-back World Series champion Yankee teams and was every bit as good as the superstars he played in the shadow of. It would be poetic justice in a way.
After spending three seasons as a reserve for the Minnesota Twins, Nettles was traded to the Cleveland Indians where over three more seasons he established himself as a power bat at third base with one of the best gloves in the game. Thanks to a feud with his manager in Cleveland. he was then traded before the 1973 season to the Yankees for a handful of afterthoughts. From 1973 to 1975 Nettles produced at a high level for some average Yankee teams.
The only notable occurrence being a game in late 1974 against the Detroit Tigers. Nettles hit a broken bat single that caused the six superballs that were lodged in the bat to come bouncing out. He was ruled out after the hit and the incident caused quite a stir around the league. However, after the developments in Major League Baseball over the last 15 years or so, it really seems more cute than controversial.
Fast forward to 1976, when a still-in-his-prime Nettles led three straight AL pennant-winning Yankee teams in home runs. During a run that included two World Series titles, his best work came in the 1978 World Series against the Dodgers. Nettles saved the series in Game 3 by flashing some leather at the hot corner. Ron Guidry surely owed him dinner after that one. Nettles continued to be a strong, steady presence with the bat and at third base for the Yankees until 1983 when a war of words with George Steinbrenner earned him a one-way ticket back to his home city of San Diego to play with the Padres.
Even if he left on a sour note, Graig Nettles' legacy as a Yankee great is unquestioned. Over the course of 11 seasons as a Yankee he earned the reputation, along with Thurman Munson, as a hard-nosed leader that would never back down from a fight. Thankfully, he backed this up with his play on the field. On the all-time Yankee leaderboard, he ranks 10th in home runs, 15th in overall rWAR, and 8th in defensive WAR. In 1976, he even posted the best defensive WAR in Yankees history (3.6). When compared to all third basemen in major league history, Nettles ranks as 12th best all time according to the JAWS system despite never getting the serious Hall of Fame consideration that he deserves. To top off his resume, as a Yankee he was named to five All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves and was appointed team captain for his final two seasons in the Bronx.
So, it would be nice to see the Yankees slap another big 9 on the wall for Graig Nettles. He would finally get the recognition he didn't get during his career while playing among marquee names like Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter and Goose Gossage. Plus, it would be a good way for the Yankees to practice for Andy Pettitte's number retirement ceremony.