Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What's In a Number?

4, 19, 34, 42, 44

1, 2, 4, 14, 16, 32, 33

3, 4, 14, 15, 66, 92

Powerball numbers? A bingo card?

Nope. Hard-core Wisconsin sports fans will instantly recognize what these numbers represent. Sports historians will see the number 66 and know that it can only be in reference to the great Ray Nitschke. Bucks fans see number 33 and think sky-hook. Number 19 can only be The Kid rapping out his 3,000th hit off of Jose Mesa on a solid single to right.

These are the retired numbers of our professional sports teams. In order:

Brewers: Molitor, Yount, Fingers, Robinson (MLB-wide), Aaron

Bucks: Robertson, Bridgeman, Moncrief, McGlocklin, Lanier, Winters, Abdul-Jabbar

Packers: Canadeo, Favre (date TBD), Hutson, Starr, Nitschke, White

They are legends. Some are enshrined in their respective sport’s hall of fame, some, notably when the Bucks were fairly liberal with their criteria, are not.

The first number to ever be retired seems to be Lou Gehrig’s No. 4 in 1940 by the New York Yankees. Since then it has become individual team’s highest honor. While most retirements are fitting, others border on the absurd. Michael Jordan never played for the Miami Heat, yet his No. 23 hangs from the rafters at American Airlines Arena, for example.

Jeremy Guthrie is trying to decide whether or not his number should be retired. When Guthrie first joined the Baltimore Orioles in 2007, he was assigned uniform number 46. For 15 years that same number belonged to 1979 Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan, a fan favorite in Baltimore who spent more than a quarter-century with the team as a player, executive, and broadcaster.

Flanagan killed himself last week, reportedly distraught over his role in the Orioles plummeting from respectability over the course of the last decade. Since his death, fans and friends alike have been dumbfounded over the demise of someone they thought they had known well.

As for Guthrie himself, he is torn as to what his uniform number represents and whether or not he should continue to wear it. “I really just want to do what people would view as the most respectful to honor him and his memory and what he did for the Orioles,” Guthrie told the Baltimore Sun. “I’ve seen a lot of fan reaction, just through communications. Some say continue to wear it, wear it with pride. There’s also been some sentiment that you can put the number away in his honor. It’s such an emotional situation. … Whatever people think would be the right thing is probably the best thing.”

The Orioles, like the Brewers, only officially retire numbers of players that make it to the Hall of Fame. While Mike Flanagan was a very good pitcher, his numbers are far short of Cooperstown. The Orioles, like the Brewers, are well-intentioned, but horribly misguided in their enforcement of this ridiculous policy.

Even though the Orioles have not officially retired the numbers of fan favorites Cal Ripken, Sr. and Elrod Hendricks, their numbers are being held what amounts to baseball purgatory. Neither late Oriole will ever have their number re-issued, but neither is officially retired either.


In Baltimore, the numbers of Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken, Jr., Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, and Eddie Murray are retired. It’s a spectacular list, certainly, but there is no reason that a fan favorite like Flanagan (and Ripken, Sr., and Hendricks, for that matter) shouldn’t be up there as well. My suspicion is that Guthrie will be wearing a new number in the very near future, which would seem to be in line with Orioles fans desires.

Likewise, here in Milwaukee, there is no reason a player like Jim Gantner shouldn’t be honored by having his No. 17 hung from the outfield wall.

Gantner spent all 17 (fittingly enough) of his major league seasons with the Brewers, anchoring second base for a team-record 1,449 games. His numbers fall far short of Cooperstown, but he did far more for the Brewers than half of the players that do have their numbers hanging in perpetual honor.

In his first year with the Brewers, Rollie Fingers won the 1981 Cy Young and MVP Awards, leading the Brewers to their first-ever postseason berth. However, injuries and age took their toll sooner rather than later, and he was finished by 1985, spending just four years in Milwaukee, but earning the distinction of having his No. 34 retired by the club.

Henry Aaron is one of the singular greatest baseball players ever. I have no issue with his No. 44’s retirement, but only for what he did while a Milwaukee Brave. However, by that same token, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn should also have their numbers retired as well. The Brewers will argue that Aaron did actually play for them, while Mathews and Spahn did not. However, to say that Aaron’s best days were behind him is quite the understatement. In two seasons as the Brewers designated hitter, Aaron hit just .232 with 22 home runs and 95 RBI’s. He was playing out the string of his marvelous career.

Both Fingers and Aaron of course were better players. But Jim Gantner was a far better Brewer.

Using the same litmus test they have used in the past, it’s a wonder that Don Sutton’s No. 21 (then 20 after Gorman Thomas was traded) isn’t retired. Will Trevor Hoffman’s No. 51 be retired then as well? If CC Sabathia becomes a Hall of Famer, will the Brewers retire his No. 52?

There is a reason that not all rules are steadfast. Just as this never should have been an issue in Baltimore with Mike Flanagan and Jeremy Guthrie, this should never become an issue in places where a number that hasn’t been issued for 20 was a good but not great fan favorite. Sometimes policies have to be bent. Not to the extent where the Bucks were retiring numbers in the 1980’s, but a special exception for extenuating circumstances.

Jim Gantner, a Wisconsin native, played the game the right way. Gantner got the most out of his ability and has continued to give back to the Brewers as a coach, first on a full-time basis, then in a part-time role. He has managed young players in the Northwoods League, while never forgetting his roots. This is honorable, and should be recognized.

There is a reason the Brewers have never re-issued No. 17. There is a reason the Orioles won’t ever re-issue No’s. 7 and 44. They shouldn’t have re-issued Flanagan’s No. 46.

It’s time for these almost-great players to receive their due. It’s beyond time for this great Brewer (and great Orioles) to also get theirs.

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