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On the silliness and greatness of the baseball jersey

Aaron Judge’s free agency threatened the legacy of a makeshift No. 99.

Aaron Judge Press Conference Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Like a lot of Yankee fans, I have a home pinstripes No. 99 hanging in my closet. The journey to get that jersey is probably different than most of you — after seeing the raw potential Aaron Judge had, albeit in a rough 2016, I was sold; I wanted his jersey. I was into this guy, and ahead of the Yankees’ first trip to Toronto in June 2017, I felt I wanted to go to Rogers Centre with a new kit.

Most of us were probably a little bit cautious about Judge after that 2016 run, but by June 1st, the first game in Toronto, that caution was melting away. Aaron Judge was the best hitter in baseball by that point, with a 191 wRC+ and 17 home runs in the first three months of the season. Getting his jersey was a hike: wouldn’t ship the authentic (read: nameless) versions to Canada, and while I don’t begrudge anyone who buys a named jersey, I just can’t do it.

Toronto Blue Jays merch dominates Canada’s sports stores, especially in the city and around it, and doubly so after back-to-back ALCS appearances. Eventually I had to order a blank home pinstripes from a monolingual Quebec website, have a local shop give their best approximation of the Yankees’ navy blue for the numbers, and pick up the finished product on the way to the game.

All of that just to wear the same shirt as a guy who does not know I exist.

Sports fans’ obsession with jerseys has always been a weird thing. They came from the nebulous world of mail-order catalogues in the 1960s and, with the Yankees of course being at the forefront of it all:

Football and hockey jerseys developed along the same lines — customizable jackets to supplant the suit and ties seen at most games before the 60s, before a hodgepodge of replica jerseys and fans’ own club teams would be spotted at games. Leagues woke up to the appeal, and by the 80s it was commonplace to walk into a stadium or arena and have the club offer their own replicas for sale.

The proliferation of “retail jerseys”, those sold specifically for the fanbase’s consumption, has led to their creation of symbols and rites — whether it be a little Afghan boy in Leo Messi’s iconic Argentina jersey or The Hockey Sweater as an allegory for Franco-Anglo tensions in Canada. All because we want to dress up like a guy on TV.

Of course any time you buy a jersey you assume a certain amount of risk. Three years ago on a trip to Denver I bought a purple Trevor Story jersey, because as a smart fan I knew there was no way Nolan Arenado would finish his career as a Rockie. It took two and a half years for that shirt to become a relic, the same way anyone who bought a Gerrit Cole Astros or Juan Soto Nationals — or a poor soul who customized a Carlos Correa Giants — now finds themselves holding a pretty silly piece of laundry.

The Yankees hedge that risk somewhat. If you bought a No. 24 because you loved Robinson Canó, if the name’s not on the back you have yourself a Tino Martinez or Matt Carpenter jersey now, depending on how you want to spin it. This is the norm for most of the Yankees’ numbers...but it wouldn’t have been possible for Aaron Judge.

There’s no doubt in my mind that part of what’s made Aaron Judge the star he is is the jersey number. No. 99 isn’t a baseball number, just 24 men have donned it in the history of the game, with a full third of those players doing so after Judge’s debut — whether he himself has started this trend is debatable, but he created a permission structure for real, impact players like James Karinchak and Alex Verdugo to adopt No. 99 and not be seen as the scrubbiest of scrubs.

So thank you, Aaron Judge, and Hal Steinbrenner, for not turning my home pinstripe No. 99 into a silly piece of laundry; or at least, a more silly piece. I don’t know what would have happened to 99 if Judge had actually left. The Yankees are already running out of numbers for their players and have been for years:

But if Paul O’Neill got his number retired after seven seasons of terrific play — and unofficially retired for almost 20 years beforehand — what would the Yankees have done for a player that was both better and more famous than O’Neill? They couldn’t throw No. 99 immediately back into circulation, but unlike the Canó-to-Sánchez-to-Carpenter pipeline, the jersey is too iconic for now to have been seen as anything but one of the franchise’s greatest failures.

Thankfully, we avoided all that. My only other Yankee jersey is a home Cole, bought after his nine-year contract virtually guaranteed he’d stay a Yankee for life. All odds point to Aaron Judge finishing his career the same way. Retail jerseys are silly, it makes no sense for a 5-foot-6 Canadian to dress up like a 6-foot-8 MVP. We do it all the same, as 60 years of increasingly-more-convenient retail services makes it easy and cheap to dress up in the pajamas our favorite players wear.