In lieu of a game thread tonight given the off-day, we'll have a good ol' Pinstriped Bible Discussion concerning that collection of 16 different numbers hanging on the walls of Monument Park.
- I'll take a moment to remember Virgil "Fire" Trucks, the author of two no-hitters with the Detroit Tigers (one of which came against the Yanks in '52) and a 3.39 career ERA. Trucks died on Saturday at the old age of 95. He only spent one year with the Yankees, his final career season in '58, but he did receive his second World Series ring for pitching out of the 'pen in 25 games at age 41. Trucks was the oldest-living Yankee at age 95.
- That title now falls to... Rugger Ardizoia? The native Italian pitcher spent two seasons before World War II in the Yankees' organization, then made one career appearance at the big-league level in '47. In that one appearance on April 30th, the righty gave up two runs on four hits and a walk in the last two innings of a rare 15-5 St. Louis Browns blowout of the Yankees. Browns center fielder Wally Judnich belted a two-run homer against him, his second of the game. Anyway, fans never heard of Rugger again until now, I guess. Good for you, you 93-year-old man, you!
The 16 numbers retired by the Yankees are the most of any baseball team, and regardless of whether it should be mocked or not, the high total is a testament to the many fantastic players to don the pinstripes over the years. Some of the players behind these retired numbers are obviously deserving (like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Berra), and some of these players' worthiness can be very easily questioned (like Martin, Maris, and Jackson). Regardless, no number is getting unretired at this point, so let's just look toward the future.
By the end of the summer, the Atlanta Braves will finally be just about done with honoring the core members of their 14-time division championship teams from 1991-2005. Over the previous few years, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Bobby Cox have had their numbers retired, and Chipper Jones's #10 is coming later this season. It's possible that they will retired Andruw Jones's #25 too somewhere down the line, but that remains to be seen (personally, I think they should just put a smiley face in a circle to honor him). Meanwhile, none of the great players from the 1990s Yankees dynasty teams that beat those Braves twice in the World Series have been honored.
It simply hasn't been that group's time to stand in the sun yet. Its greatest players are still active, and the retired members are not quite the surefire Hall of Famers that those Braves are (that might be up for debate, but that is not today's debate). Even though the Yankees have not retired a number in almost 10 years, there are several numbers out of circulation. Some of them have not been worn in quite some time, so it seems like the Yankees will do something honorary sometime in the near future. The question is when? Let's take a quick look at the candidates:
#21- Paul O'Neill: The stalwart right fielder of the late-'90s teams, O'Neill spent nine years in New York, hitting .303/.377/.492 with 304 doubles, 185 homers, a 125 OPS+, and 24.1 WAR in pinstripes. He was an All-Star four times, and he finished fifth in the AL MVP voting in the strike-shortened '94 campaign. That year was the last season O'Neill would play without October baseball, but he did win the batting title with a .364 average, the highest by a Yankee lefty in generations. It was the second of six straight over-.300 seasons as a Yankee. The November '92 trade with the Cincinnati Reds for Roberto Kelly turned out to be a terrific deal for the Yanks and one of former GM Gene Michael's great heists. O'Neill hit .284/.363/.465 in 85 career playoff games (nine with the Reds), right in line with his career averages. His best series was probably either his three-homer '95 ALDS against the Seattle Mariners or his 1.335 OPS Subway Series against the Mets.
No one's denying that O'Neill was a tremendous player for the Yankees, but do you consider his #21 worthy of retirement? Similar players like Hank Bauer and Tommy Henrich don't have their numbers retired. Nonetheless, Yankee Stadium fans have gone berserk over the years when guys like LaTroy Hawkins and Morgan Ensberg briefly donned #21. Hell, Hawkins just wanted to wear it to honor Pirates star Roberto Clemente, but no dice. Thus, it's been almost-entirely out of circulation since O'Neill's retirement following the 2001 World Series, a good 12 seasons. Should O'Neill's be the first to be put in mothballs? Should it be retired at all?
#51- Bernie Williams: Bernie sometimes gets the shaft when recalling the Yankees' homegrown talent of the past couple decades. The "Core Four" of Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, and Posada tend to be the first to be recalled by the media since the quartet added a fifth title in 2009, but Bernie was the there long before any of them. He was signed as a skinny 17-year-old on his birthday in 1985, and he spent the next 21 years in service to the Yankees before fading away after the '06 campaign. He debuted in '91 when the Yankees were in the cellar and left as a veteran of the Yankees' ninth consecutive AL East champions. The Yankees' best switch hitter since the days of Mantle hit .297/.381/.477 with 449 doubles (third all-time) and 287 homers (seventh all-time) to go with a 125 OPS+ in 2,076 games (sixth all-time). (Make me miss the days of "Bernie goes Boom.") Bernie made the All-Star team five years in a row from '97-'01, and he hit over .300 eight years in a row, including a .339 batting title in '98. He was so well-respected in the potent Yankees lineup that he even led the AL in intentional walks in '99 with 17. In 121 playoff games, he hit .275/.371/.480 with 22 homers, winning the '96 ALCS MVP and twice slugging walk-off homers in the first game of the ALCS.
Bernie clearly established a niche in Yankees history as the best non-Mantle switch-hitter and a top center fielder. If I had to pick one player to retire a number for this year, I would pick Bernie. Would you? Should someone else go first?
#6- Joe Torre: The manager behind the Yankees' 12 consecutive playoff appearances from '96-'07 appears to be a lock for Cooperstown once he appears on the next modern era manager's ballots with fellow acclaimed skippers Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa in 2014. While Torre's strategies in the latter parts of his tenure were maligned by overuse of relievers like Scott Proctor, Tom Gordon, and Paul Quantrill, he did much better with a stronger overall corps with his "threepeat" teams and the combination of Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, and Ramiro Mendoza (among others). Similarly, he was better at working with the many stars' egos earlier on, but later struggled with Alex Rodriguez and other players.
Internally, it was a tumultuous tenure and Torre certainly benefited from great teams, but the results do speak for themselves. He never missed the playoffs with the Yankees, and only Joe McCarthy finished with more wins in team history. Torre's teams went 1,173-767, a .605 winning percentage, and he added six AL pennants and the Yankees' first four championships since the '70s to boot. Other Yankees managers might have won more titles, but they did not have to navigate through three rounds of playoffs to do so. My hunch is that the Yankees will retire Torre's number the year he goes into Cooperstown, but we shall see. Would you retire Torre's number?
#20- Jorge Posada: The fiery backstop wore the tools of ignorance in 20 professional seasons within the Yankees organization, establishing himself as probably the best catcher in baseball for the decade of the 2000s. While Posada sometimes struggled on defense, he did throw out 28% of baserunners in his career, and he made his living as a switch-hitting slugger. Posada ranks right up there with his fellow Latin star Bernie Williams in many offensive categories--doubles (379, seventh), homers (275, eighth), and games played (1,829, eighth). Only Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey caught more games for the Yankees in their history than "Georgie." It took him longer than it should have for him to wrest the starting job from Joe Girardi, too. In his playoff career, Posada hit .248/.358/.387 with 23 doubles and 11 homers.
A five-time All-Star, his career year was either 2003, when he finished third in AL MVP voting thanks to the Yanks' first 30-homer season by a catcher since Yogi, or 2007, when he hit a surprising .338/.426/.543 with 42 doubles and a 153 OPS+ (overshadowed by an otherworldly A-Rod that year, he finished sixth in AL MVP voting). Does Posada deserve number retirement before Bernie, Torre, and O'Neill? He may very well be the most qualified Hall of Fame candidate of all former Yankees not in Cooperstown.
Some more thoughts:
- I have another theory that the first number retired from the group of players that includes the three above, Andy Pettitte, and Derek Jeter will, in fact, be Jeter. If the Yankees want to look back and honor that tremendous era of Yankee baseball, who better to start it with than with the overall MVP? Jeter's on top of the Yankees' hit parade for a reason, and he's lasted longer than all of them. I also think if they go this route, they will wait until Jeter's inducted to the Hall of Fame. It might be awhile, but who knows. Do you think they would wait or just retire it immediately as the Braves are doing with Chipper this year?
- I think it's a near-lock that Torre's #6 will be retired whenever he is inducted to Cooperstown. Any internal strife with Torre aside, I can't imagine them waiting around too long to do so afterwards, if not only for immediate potential of marketability. You don't want anything to happen what occurred between the Tigers and Sparky Anderson, who waited too long to retire his number before his death in 2010.
- I doubt any of these players will have their numbers retired at the exact same time like the Yankees did with Roger Maris's #9 and Elston Howard's #32 in July 1984. It might sound nice in theory, but again, marketing. It's the same reason teams don't really schedule doubleheaders anymore--why only capitalize on one day's receipts when you can have two? Separate "Derek Jeter Days" and "Bernie Williams Days" are going to sell more money than just one.
- A-Rod's #13? I'm not sure if I even want to go there right now. Let's see how the rest of his contract plays out, though I just don't know if the Yankees are fond of A-Rod enough to honor him.
- I could very easily see the Yankees "retiring" Mariano Rivera's #42 on the last game of the 2012 season, or early next season if they don't want to wait for him to be inducted to Cooperstown. It's not really retiring the number anyway since it's retired league-wide for Jackie Robinson.
- I think it's very possible that at some point way down the road, Mike Mussina will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (and it will take longer than it should). Even then, I don't know that the Yankees will retire his #35. Other Hall of Fame Yankee pitchers like Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, and Goose Gossage don't have their numbers retired, so it's not a lock. If they don't retire his number though, they should have some kind of plaque out there for Moose at some point. One could make an argument that he was the best free-agent signing in Yankees history, simply due to his consistency on the mound for eight seasons. Hell, go league-wide with that query and the only ones I can think of in the same realm of success as the Moose signing are Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson.
So who of these four do you think will have his number retired first? Should any of them have it retired at all? Enjoy the evening.