Another numbers game—uniform numbers, that is

Fernando Valenzuela

Tyler Kepner and Jay Jaffe aren’t the only observers who think the Dodgers should retire Fernando Valenzuela’s number 34. 

The owners and the players have been talk-talking at last this week, in consecutive days’ meetings. It sure took long enough. Hope the owners are proud of themselves. Remember this: It’s as much of a lie to blame this lockout on the players as it is to call under-attack Ukraine a client of the State Department.

So until the owners show they’re serious about saving spring training and maybe a portion of the regular season to come, and admit that they could damn well have let baseball continue its hot-stove season and spring training while playing under the expired CBA and negotiating honourably with the players, I’m going to think about something else.

Retired uniform numbers, for example.

Blame it on The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, responding to the New York Times‘s Tyler Kepner, in a tweet: “Your semiannual reminder that it’s past time for the #Dodgers to retire Fernando Valenzuela’s #34. Ridiculous waste of an opportunity to do so on the 40th anniversary of his rookie-season heroics in 2021.”

Seven years ago, writing elsewhere, I pondered retired numbers, including the Yankees’ flood worth of them, when they elected to retire Bernie Williams’s number 51. Valenzuela was an omission on my part when it came to numbers the Dodgers should retire. But I’m on board with it now.

Until too many innings and too many screwballs too young turned him into a journeyman Valenzuela was a great pitcher. He’s also become an icon after his pitching career ended, as a broadcaster two decades on, representing his fellow Latinos with insight and earning numerous honours from that community.

Mark Armour, the founder of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Bio Project, sees and raises. He thinks the Dodgers should also retire Don Newcombe’s 36. I’d be on board with that wholly. Big Newk had his struggles beyond his race—his worst enemy proved to be himself—but he was the first black man to start the first game of a World Series; he was the National League’s first Rookie of the Year (the award’s first two years were major league whole awards); and, he was the first Cy Young Award winner in 1956.

If we’re talking strictly about the Dodgers, still, I have two more numbers they should retire: 25 and 47.

Tommy John wore 25 as a Dodger. He was also a Dodger when he agreed to become the first pitcher to undergo the career-saving surgery that’s borne his name long since. If you take his career strictly on its own terms without the surgery he might pull up short of a Hall of Famer—though he was a better pitcher than newly-elected contemporary Jim Kaat by a few miles—but throw in his status as a pitching health co-pioneer and he deserves the honour. And his uniform number’s retirement.

Andy Messersmith wore 47 as a Dodger. He pitched terrifically as a Dodger. (ERA: 2.51; fielding-independent pitching: 3.15.) He also finished what Curt Flood started as a Dodger—he pitched 1975 without a contract, after then-GM Al Campanis offended him soul deep, then refused all subsequent big-money Dodger offers to cave in and took it all the way to an arbitrator.

Messersmith did the heaviest lifting. Arm-and-shoulder-addled but technically-unsigned Dave McNally walked away from the game that June and signed onto the grievance in August at Marvin Miller’s behest on a just-in-case basis, since Miller feared Messersmith might not go the distance. Fear unfounded. Messersmith went all the way and won what Flood couldn’t in the end: the end of the reserve era and the right of players to negotiate their services on an open market once and for all.

If that doesn’t deserve a number retirement, too, I’m lost for knowing what does.

Back seven years ago, I had other ideas about whose numbers should be retired. Let’s revisit a few of them:

Angels—Tim Salmon (15). The Kingfish was the franchise face until they signed Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero as a free agent. Salmon also helped the Angels win their only World Series to date, even if Troy Glaus was named that Series’s MVP. But don’t even think about retiring number 27 until Mike Trout’s career is over; Trout’s already been ten times the player Guerrero was, including Vlad the Impaler’s Hall-making years with the Montreal Expos.

Astros-–J.R. Richard (50). He’s still the arguable best pitcher the Astros have ever had. (Justin Verlander isn’t liable to endure long enough to stake a claim on that title, though he should have his number retired by the Tigers in due course.) The end of his career was nobody’s fault even if you could argue the Astros then were negligent in not smelling trouble when he complained of shoulder fatigue before the strokes.

Athletics—Lefty Grove (10), Al Simmons (7). Who cares that Simmons had a uniform number only one year and Grove, three? How do you not retire two Hall of Famers’ numbers? Especially that of the man who was, arguably, the greatest pitcher in “organised” baseball prior to World War II and integration and night ball?

Blue Jays—Carlos Delgado (25), John Olerud (9), and Cito Gaston (43). The two best first basemen in franchise history, and their only World Series-winning manager—who did that back-to-back while he was at it. Isn’t that case enough?

Braves—Fred Haney (2). Manager Haney led the Braves to their first back-to-back pennants and a World Series title the first time. That should speak for itself.

Brewers—Harvey Kuenn (32). Managed them to their only World Series appearance and took them to seven games. His free-swinging lineup of sluggers earned that team the nickname Harvey’s Wallbangers. How many teams do you know get nicknamed for their manager?

Cardinals—Curt Flood (21), Scott Rolen (27). Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy [Messersmith] showed us the way.—Hall of Famer Ted Simmons. Rolen? He only solidified a Hall of Fame case as a Cardinal and, while he was at it, helped them win the 2006 World Series (and with a 1.213 Series OPS while he was at it).

Cubs—Gabby Hartnett (9), Joe Maddon (70). Hall of Fame catcher remembered almost strictly for “The Homer in the Gloamin’,” the ninth-inning game-winner as darkness approached then-unlit Wrigley Field, to put the Cubs in first place three days before they nailed the 1938 National League pennant. But Hartnett was also a well-above-average defensive catcher.

And if you don’t know why manager Maddon should have his Cubs number retired, you must have slept through the 2016 World Series.

Diamondbacks—For now, ask me when Ketel Marte’s (4) career is over.

Giants—Barry Bonds (25), Buster Posey (28). ‘Nuff said. I hope. (Do I really have to say Posey’s the greatest catcher in the history of the franchise?)

Guardians (former Indians)—Kenny Lofton (7), Early Wynn (24). Lofton’s a should-be Hall of Famer whose case deserves a thorough review from the Today’s Game Committee. Wynn is a Hall of Fame pitcher. If the Hall of Fame is a criteria for number retirement, Wynn’s been overdue since before John F. Kennedy was shot out of the White House.

Marlins—Josh Beckett (21). The first Fish pitcher to bag a World Series for them and win the Series MVP who wasn’t subjected to an immediate fire sale.

Mariners—Felix Hernandez (34), Ichiro Suzuki (51). The worst-kept secret in Seattle and elsewhere is that Ichiro’s going to Cooperstown. So why wait? The second worst-kept secret: King Felix may actually edge out Hall of Famer Randy Johnson as the greatest peak value pitcher the Mariners ever had, even adjusting the Big Unit for pitching as a Mariner in an era of insane offense.

Mets—Dwight Gooden (16), Keith Hernandez (17), Ed Kranepool (7), Darryl Strawberry (18), David Wright (5). Mex, Dr. K, Straw, and Captain America should be obvious. But Kranepool? He was only the longest-serving original Met (from 1962 he played eighteen seasons with the team), one of the most popular Mets, and a terrific pinch hitter in the final four or five seasons of his career.

Nationals—Ryan Zimmerman (11). There are reasons they call him Mr. National. They only begin with his entire sixteen-season career being played from the first year the Nats were open for business in Washington.

Orioles—Mike Mussina (35). Their best pitcher of the 1990s also happens to be a Hall of Famer. What are they waiting for, permission from the Yankees?

Padres—Dick Williams (23). If they could retire Steve Garvey’s 6 for helping them to their first World Series—despite his best years long behind him in Los Angeles, and despite not being their best player (though he did hit that game-winning bomb to send the NLCS to the deciding Game Five)—there’s an even greater case for retiring the 23 of the manager who shepherded them there in the first place.

Phillies—Jimmy Rollins (11), Chase Utley (26). The best middle infield combination in franchise history. Utley has a Hall of Fame case and Rollins comes up short enough of the Hall, but the Phillies never had a better pair surrounding second base at once and for so long.

Pirates—Elroy Face (26), Jim Leyland (14). Even if contemporary metrics make his signature season less than it seemed at the time, Face remains the best relief pitcher in franchise history. Leyland, of course, managed the Pirates back to greatness in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s.

Rangers—Frank Howard (33). I’m not entirely sure how the Rangers look upon their Washington past, but if they look kindly upon it then the behemoth bomber who was the Senators for all intent and purpose from 1965-71 deserves his number retired.

Rays—Joe Maddon (70). Commanded them to their first World Series in 2008.

Reds—Ernie Lombardi (4), Jim Maloney (46). Lombardi became a Hall of Fame catcher mostly by way of his big bat; Maloney was the Reds’ best pitcher of the 1960s.

Red Sox—Terry Francona (47), Roger Clemens (21). Clemens remains in a dead heat with Pedro Martinez as the greatest Red Sox pitcher, ever, though if you go by their fielding-independent pitching as Red Sox Martinez comes out slightly better. (Actual/alleged PEDs  Nazis beware: Clemens wasn’t suspect until after he left Boston, I think.) Francona, of course, managed them to the end of the actual or alleged Curse and won a second World Series on their bridge while he was at it, too.

Rockies—Clint Hurdle (13). Managed them to their only World Series thus far.

Royals—Whitey Herzog (24), Dan Quisenberry (29). The White Rat managed them to practically all American League postseasons in the late 1970s. Quisenberry, as delightful a character as he was a pitcher, was the best relief pitcher the Royals ever had until the brief but profound stature of H-D-H (Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera) in the mid-2010s.

Tigers—Jim Bunning (14), Mickey Lolich (29), Lou Whitaker (1). Two of the franchise’s four best post-World War II pitchers (Justin Verlander’s eventual 36 retirement is a given, and Jack Morris’s 47 is already retired), and their should-be Hall of Fame second baseman. Did I mention Bunning’s a Hall of Famer, too?

Twins—Joe Judge (5), Sam Rice (22), Johan Santana (57), Walter Johnson (25). The Twins may well disdain their Washington origins, too, but you can sort of understand why: the ancient legend went “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” But the Ancient Senators’ best first baseman (Judge), Hall of Fame outfielder (Rice), and greatest pitcher, period (you know who) deserve the honour. So does Santana, the greatest 21st Century pitcher the Twins have had.

(Fair disclosure: Johnson only wore a number after he became the team’s manager. But some technicalities deserve to be bypassed and if any Nat/Twin deserves a number retirement, it’s the Big Train.)

White Sox—Al Lopez (42). The South Siders should have retired Lopez’s 42 long before the game-wide retirement of Jackie Robinson’s 42 made it superflous. Just put the number up in Lopez’s White Sox colours anyway. The man who led the White Sox to their first World Series since the Black Sox’s 1919 deserves it.

Yankees—Mel Stottlemyre (30). As if they don’t have enough retired numbers already? But Stottlemyre was the Yankees’ best pitcher during their lost decade of 1965-75, though Fritz Peterson was an awfully close second. Stottlemyre also became a respected pitching coach for both the Mets and, in due course, the Yankees themselves. And how can you hand a man a Monument Park plaque without retiring his number?

Update: The Tigers plan indeed to retire Lou Whitaker’s number 1 this summer—assuming there’ll be a season.

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