Uni Watch: I've got your number!

The stadium scene.
Jan. 19 2004 11:35 AM

Uni Watch

Hey, old man, I've got your number!

Clemens' second choice
Clemens' second choice

When the Houston Astros announced the signing of Roger Clemens last week, they had him don a jersey with uniform No. 22. Clemens prefers 21, but that number had already been taken last month by his friend Andy Pettitte—who, ironically, chose the number in honor of Clemens, not realizing the Rocket would soon be his teammate.

If history is any guide, Pettitte may now have some bargaining leverage. When Clemens joined the Blue Jays in 1997, he gave Carlos Delgado a $15,000 Rolex in return for Delgado switching uni numbers, part of a rich tradition of ballplayers bartering and negotiating with each other for coveted digits.

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Some athletes opt for a certain number because it communicates homeland pride: Jolbert Cabrera of the Dodgers wears No. 6 because he's the sixth big leaguer from Colombia, and former Mets Sid Fernandez and Benny Agbayani both wore 50 to honor their home state of Hawaii. Others opt for personal esoterica: Carlos May wore 17 because the name/number combo on the back of his jersey spelled out his birthday, May 17th, while the NBA's Nick Van Exel wears 37 because he was the 37th player selected in the 1993 draft. But it's Pettitte's approach—choosing a number in honor of another player—that Uni Watch finds most interesting because it creates uniform-based connections between generations and eras.

Here's a sampling of such numerical tributes, past and present, in Major League Baseball:

Player(s)

Uniform number

In honor of

Alex Rodriguez

3

Boyhood idol Dale Murphy

Barry Bonds

24, 25

Wore 24 for his godfather, Willie Mays, while with the Pirates; upon joining the Giants, switched to 25 for his father, Bobby Bonds

Ken Griffey Jr.

30

Ken Griffey Sr.

Sammy Sosa

21

Roberto Clemente

Edgardo Alfonzo, Ozzie Guillen, other Venezuelan players

13

Venezuelan native Dave Concepcion

Eddie Perez

12

A midpoint between Venezuelan heroes Concepcion (13) and Luis Aparicio (11)

Sandy Alomar Jr.

15

Fellow catcher Thurman Munson

Tim Wakefield

49

Fellow knuckleballers Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti; Wakefield later learned that Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm wore 49, too

Trot Nixon, Craig Biggio

7

Mickey Mantle ( Jason Giambi also
tributes Mantle, but in a more roundabout way: 7 has been retired by the Yankees,
so Giambi wears 25, because 2 plus 5 equals 7.)

Jason Varitek

33

Fellow switch-hitter Eddie Murray

Willie McCovey, Reggie Jackson, Eric Davis

44

Hank Aaron

Numerical tributes also occur in other sports (although rarely in football, where uni numbers are regimented by position). In the NHL, for example, Mario Lemieux's 66 is an upside-down nod to Wayne Gretzky's 99  (which was itself a tribute to Gordie Howe's 9). And in the NBA, LeBron James wears 23 for Michael Jordan while Kevin Garnett and Malik Sealy once found themselves in a situation similar to that of Pettitte and Clemens: When Garnett was drafted by the Timberwolves in 1995, he chose 21 in honor of Sealy, one of his favorite players—which forced Sealy to switch to a different number when he joined the Timberwolves in '98.

Meanwhile, Uni Watch sadly notes the recent de facto retirement of Mo Vaughn, the last player to wear 42 as a tribute to Jackie Robinson. Major League Baseball required all teams to retire the number in 1997, but players who were already wearing 42 at the time were grandfathered. The Yankees' Mariano Rivera is now the final 42er, but Vaughn was the last who was specifically honoring Robinson, who'll henceforth be acknowledged exclusively in the retired-number galleries. 

Questions or suggestions for Uni Watch? Send mail here.

Paul Lukas writes about food, travel, and consumer culture for a variety of publications.

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