In case you missed it, the New York Yankees announced yesterday their first major addition of the offseason, although in this case, it wasn’t an addition to the roster, but rather to Monument Park. After two decades mostly out of circulation (it had been issued in spring training, and LaTroy Hawkins infamously wore it for two weeks in an attempt to honor Roberto Clemente), Paul O’Neill’s No. 21 will be formally retired in a ceremony prior to the Sunday afternoon matinee between the Yankees and the Blue Jays on August 21st. He’ll become the sixth player from the dynasty years to receive the honor, joining Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte.
With No. 21’s retirement, the Yankees now have the numbers of 22 players enshrined in Monument Park — or, to put it another way, there are 21 numbers that are no longer available to members of the 40 man roster (remember, No. 8 is retired for both Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey). More than one-fifth of the numbers between 0 and 99 are permanently out of commission; for comparison, the Cardinals are second with 12.
Sooner than any other organization, the Yankees will run out of numbers. While that might seem like a problem, it’s actually an opportunity to define how the sport will identify players in the future. How might they solve the problem? Here are four possible solutions:
The Double-Zero (00)
A few years back, Adam Ottavino became the first Yankee to wear zero on his back, and to this date, only 31 players ever have donned the lowest single-digit number (according to Baseball Reference, at least). But what about the double-zero, 00? Surprisingly, this number has been almost as common, with 20 players having worn it; most recently, that was Taijuan Walker with the Blue Jays in 2020.
Unfortunately, the double-zero doesn’t help all that match, as it only adds one singular number. Nonetheless, it opens the door to another category of numbers...
Single-Digit Number with Leading Zero (e.g., 01, 02, etc.)
From 1993 to 1994, catcher Benito Santiago wore the number 09 as a member of the San Diego Padres and Florida Marlins; he added the leading zero so that his “real” number 9 could be seen when behind the plate.
To this day, Santiago is the only person in professional sports to don a number with a leading zero. Simply putting these nine numbers into circulation, plus the double-zero, increases the total number of uniform numbers by ten percent — a not-insignificant increase.
Of course, the leading zero can only add a limited number of two-digit numbers. When these numbers run out, they take a page from the Super Bowl playbook and perhaps turn to Roman numerals for an added boost. The use of Roman numerals can, in essence, double the amount of numbers available to the team, as two players could essentially share a number. For example, imagine Paul Olden, the Yankee Stadium PA announcer, introducing the Yankees leadoff hitter as “Number X-C-I-X, Anthony Volpe” and the No. 2 hitter as “Number 99, Aaron Judge.”
Sure, it might be a little wordy, and it might look a little weird on the uniforms, but hey, when the 110 Arabic numbers aren’t enough, you have to make due.
Scientific Constants and Irrational Numbers
Perhaps the team finds Roman numerals inelegant. Perhaps they could recognize that there are technically infinite numbers between 0 and 99, so long as they’re willing to look at more than just integers. Sure, square roots, fractions, and decimals would be a strange sight on the field, and might just bring back some tough memories from high school algebra, but they would multiply the number of options. And hey, remember when the national anthem singer Robert Merrill wore No. 1 1/2? The man was a visionary.
For those players who majored in physics or chemistry in college, using mathematical and scientific constants would be a fantastic opportunity to showcase their education. A speedy outfielder with a ton of range and who steals bases regularly might find c, the universal constant for the speed of light, a fitting symbol. Other players might find the universe gravitational constant G, Earth’s gravitational acceleration g, or the elementary charge e more appealing. And of course, there’s always π.