What’s In A Number?

Brandon Phillips was the Cincinnati Reds’ starting second baseman from April 2006 until the day he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in February 2017. Throughout his time with the Reds, BP was one of the most popular and productive members of the roster. He won four Gold Glove Awards, made three All-Star Games, won one Silver Slugger Award and entered the 30-30 club in 2007. He gave Reds fans plenty to remember off the field as well, as he was the most outgoing member of the team during his decade in Cincinnati. He was always available for a picture, an autograph or just time with his “Debbies”.

He also endeared himself to Reds fans by telling reporters during a memorable interview  in 2010 how much he hated the St. Louis Cardinals because all they did was bitch and moan about everything. Reds fans had noticed this ever since the outspoken & whiny Tony La Russa took that franchise over, and we loved Dat Dude even more than we already did for pointing it out. Phillips was a integral part of some good Reds teams in the early 2010s, and even though he’s not here now most Reds fans still love & respect him.

Phillips came back to Cincinnati with the Braves in June, and rubbed some people the wrong way with the following statement during an interview with Fox Sports Ohio & WLWT:

“Another thing, though, I still can’t believe that No. 4, is… someone is wearing my number. I think that’s a slap in my face, too. But it is what it is. Man, people have their own opinions and I’m going to have mine. Whether they respect it or not, I’m going to be myself regardless. Like I said, I’m wearing Cincinnati on my chest and I’m always going to be Mr. Cincinnati.”

I’ll admit that I was a little surprised when I first saw Scooter Gennett wearing the number 4 on Opening Day. I thought the Reds might give it a little time before running the number back out there. But the thing is that there are only so many numbers that can be given out, and there are certain ones that the Reds like to keep going back to.

The first Reds team I really remember is the 1990 Wire to Wire team. 17 was the number of my first favorite Red, Chris Sabo. Since Sabo’s departure in 1996, it’s been worn by Aaron Boone, Shin-Soo Choo & a couple of others. 21 was Paul O’Neill’s number when he was teammates with Sabo for that 1990 World Series Championship team, since he left it’s been worn by Deion Sanders, Mark Portugal, Sean Casey, Scott Hatteberg, Todd Frazier & Michael Lorenzen. 27 was Jose Rijo’s number, then it was Scott Rolen’s. Tom Browning wore 32, and later on Jay Bruce had a pretty good run with it. 44 was Eric Davis’s number, and he’s shared it with Adam Dunn, Mike Leake & others.

Some people complain about these numbers not being retired. I don’t. I like seeing current players wear the numbers of players from my childhood, as it brings back the memories of 1990 and when I thought the Reds would win championships all the time. It brings back the memories of these vintage players that might not have been Hall of Famers but were important in Reds history nonetheless. BP should be happy that whenever Scooter hits a home run this season, people will go “Remember when Brandon Phillips wore that number?” It keeps him in the hearts & minds of Reds fans.

gennett

The Reds had only two retired numbers for much of my time following the team. 1 was retired for Fred Hutchinson, the team’s manager in the early 1960s that got sick with cancer during the 1964 season and passed away in October of that year. 5 was retired for Johnny Bench in 1984, the year after he retired. They wouldn’t retire any more until 1998, when the floodgates opened and three numbers were retired. Skeptical people like myself might think this was done to drive ticket sales, but in the Reds’ defense the eight numbers they have retired since 1998 have each honored deserving players, or in the case of Sparky Anderson’s 10, a legendary manager. Ted Kluszewski & Dave Concepcion are kind of debatable, but Klu had a solid career and contributed to the organization as a coach & hitting instructor for years after he retired, while Davey should be in the HOF according to most Reds fans alive in the 1970s. Besides, it’s not like anybody else wants to wear 13 anyway.

The Reds’ standards are high compared to most MLB teams, but they’re pretty lax compared to other teams I root for. The Bengals have one retired number after fifty years: 54 in honor of Bob Johnson, the very first draft pick the Bengals made in 1968. He lasted eleven years as their center, so it was a good pick by them. They haven’t retired anybody else’s number officially, but Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz’s 78 hasn’t been seen since he retired. One assumes that a ceremony would make sense if Mike Brown ever wanted to honor the past, which isn’t something he usually does outside of selling merchandise with anniversary logos on it. Granted, I try to forget most of the Bengals’ history too. Ken Anderson’s 14 was kept out of circulation until Andy Dalton got it, and Boomer Esiason’s 7 hasn’t been seen since David Klingler’s disastrous turn with it. It’s hard for NFL teams to retire too many numbers, as the strict numbering system for different positions leads to only so many choices for certain positions. Also, NFL rosters carry 53 people so teams need access to most numbers. If you take too many away, things start getting complicated.

The NFL in general isn’t really into retiring numbers, and neither is college sports. The University of Louisville prefers to “honor” jerseys instead of retire them, so you’ll see some names and numbers up in the rafters at the Yum Center & at Cardinal Stadium, but that doesn’t mean the number is retired. Men’s basketball has four officially retired numbers, while football has one. That’s Johnny Unitas’s 14, so seems kind of silly to bother retiring anybody else’s when that’s the standard.

The Nashville Predators haven’t been around long enough to consider retiring numbers, so it’s too soon to tell what their approach will be. With David Legwand retired now, Mike Fisher likely retiring this off-season or next, and Pekka Rinne approaching his 35th birthday, we should find out pretty soon. Nashville will celebrate 20 years in the NHL soon, and teams like to do special things to celebrate such occasions. The 20th or 25th anniversary might see the Preds’ first number retirement ceremony. Or it might not. Considering two different skaters wore Legwand’s 11 this season, the Preds may be as stingy with retiring numbers as my other teams are. Which I’m fine with.

From where I sit, there are two acceptable categories that a retired number can fall under.

1. They were among the absolute best of their era, holding franchise records and/or winning championships. Titles separate the best from the rest. I didn’t make that up, players did.

2. They were forced to retire early due to injury or illness, or passed away tragically. In most cases, these folks wouldn’t have attained the numbers expected of 1, but didn’t have a chance to. Most early retired numbers were worn by athletes forced into retirement themselves, which makes sense in a linear sort of way.

The NBA is pretty liberal when it comes to retiring numbers. With baseball, football & hockey you’ll notice that a pretty large percentage of the people honored in this matter are in their sport’s Hall of Fame. Basketball is a different world. Dustin James’s Portland Trail Blazers have eleven retired numbers. Two of the people wearing these numbers were Hall of Famers. One was the owner, though apparently you can wear the number 1 even though he’s up in the rafters with it, so I’m not really sure what’s going on there.

Even more ridiculous are the Miami Heat, who retired the number 13 in honor of Dan Marino, who was a football player, and 23 in honor of Michael Jordan, who never played basketball for the Miami Heat. Compared to that, retiring Shaquille O’Neal’s 32 even though he only played four seasons there made way too much sense.

miamia

With everybody changing teams during NBA free agency, some people may not have noticed Zach Randolph leaving the Memphis Grizzlies for the Sacramento Kings. Memphis fans certainly noticed, as Randolph was a popular member of a team that they loved in spite of its lack of postseason success. This could have turned into a bad situation for ownership, as the Memphis fans could have easily blamed them for being too cheap to keep Randolph around. That’s what would probably happen in 95% of major sports markets. When a popular player leaves, it either gets people mad at the player (Kevin Durant & OKC) or the ownership (The Reds & their various trades).

Grizzlies management responded to Randolph leaving by writing a pair of very emotional letters to Randolph & Grizzlies fans, including the following proclamation by owner Robert Pera:

“Zach, you helped turn a lottery team into a perennial playoff contender. You helped make a basketball team a model of community service. Thank you for all that you put into this community and this organization. #50 will never be worn by another member of the Memphis Grizzlies.”

zbojersey

When I first saw this I saw it for what it was: a shameless attempt at kissing ass. Grizzlies management didn’t want to pay the man, so instead they offered empty platitudes and appeals to Randolph’s ego. You see this pretty often in sports. A player gets sent away, then when they return to their old city, the home team will play an emotional video showing highlights of the player along with an expression of gratitude for their time there. Its usually a nice moment. P.K. Subban’s Montreal video had me going for a minute there.

Grizzlies management took the idea to the next level. See, this whole number retirement thing is usually played cool. Teams don’t issue a number for a while after somebody leaves. People know why. They know that eventually there’s going to be a ceremony after the player retires. Sometimes new players try to take a number and it doesn’t go over well. Some new players know where they’re playing and are smart enough not to mess with it, like Yannick Weber when he came to Nashville right after Shea Weber was traded. His number with Vancouver was 6, but 6 was Shea’s number with the Preds and he knew that Nashville fans weren’t going to handle another defenseman named Weber wearing 6 very well. So he asked Preds fans for their input through the Twitter machine, and with their help arrived at the number 7. It helped ease the transition and Yannick was welcomed with open arms due to his understanding.

Mind you, Predators management never said that they were retiring the number. It’s just assumed. Grizzlies management kicked the art of assumption to the side and put their cards on the table. In lieu of actually trying to keep Randolph on their team, they let him go, and let everybody know how much they really cared about him by writing tear-jerking letters and telling us that nobody else would ever wear 50 except for Z-Bo, because they really love him. They don’t love him enough to pay him, but they love him.

So ridiculous, right?

Grizzlies fans bought the whole thing hook, line and sinker.

They weren’t mad that their favorite player left the team. They weren’t mad that ownership wouldn’t put up the money to keep him around. They weren’t even sad over the whole situation. No, they were happy to have lived through the illustrious “Grit & Grind” Era that resulted in a Western Conference Finals berth. Where they lost in four games. But hey, let’s listen to Bomani Jones via Twitter and retire everybody’s number!

when it’s all done, z-bo, allen, gasol and conley will have their numbers retired. and they should. 

grizz fans will always remember this era. those players are clearly special to fans. you absolutely retire their jerseys.

OK, I’ll admit that Bomani is a lot smarter than I am when it comes to sports & the emotions of Memphis Grizzlies fans and many other things. But I had to wonder if the dude was in a state where medical marijuana is legal. You come out here and tell me that Tony Allen’s jersey should be retired and I’m not supposed to laugh you out of the room? Come on now. These guys are solid players, don’t get me wrong. But when I consider the average player whose number is retired by one of my favorite teams…they fall well short of that standard.

Zach Randolph getting his number retired seems like the equivalent of Brandon Phillips getting his number retired by the Reds. Both were good to great players. Both had a good connection with the fans. But I have to balk at the idea of immediately putting their numbers in the rafters the second they leave, like the Grizz did for Randolph and like Phillips thinks the Reds should have for him.

There is one major difference between BP & Z-Bo’s numbers. Phillips wore 4. It’s a pretty common number for baseball players young and old. Players love single digits as a status symbol. The lower your number in baseball, the more likely it is you’ll stick around. Randolph wore 50. It’s not a popular number for basketball players. There’s a good chance nobody else would request it anyway, so taking it out of circulation isn’t a big deal.

I do think that basketball has more of an emotional connection between players and fans than other sports do. For one thing, there are fewer players on a basketball roster. Football has 53 roster spots, with 11 people on offense & defense at a time. Baseball has 25 spots with 9 playing at a time. Hockey has 23 spots, and 19 of those people see time on the ice during a game. They also all wear helmets or hats & lots of padding. Basketball has 12 roster spots. 5 people play at a time and maybe 7 or 8 end up getting significant playing time. They don’t wear hats or helmets and fans sit closer to the court than they do in any other sport. You see more of your players and there aren’t as many of them competing for attention.

There’s also the fact that the NBA encourages their players to show their personalities while other sports leagues frown on such things. Basketball is all about emotion while other sports try to hide theirs. Baseball players get thrown at if they look at somebody the wrong way. Football players can show some emotion on occasion, but it’s really tough to see. Hockey players aren’t allowed to have personalities or else they’ll be considered a distraction. Basketball players are allowed & encouraged to wear their heart on their sleeve. Well, they don’t wear sleeves, but you get the point.

Then you have to understand the history of the Memphis Grizzlies. There isn’t much of one. They started out in Vancouver in 1995, then moved to Memphis in 2001. They were pretty terrible all along the way, with a brief spurt of respectability from 2003-06 thanks to Hubie Brown & Mike Fratello. Then in 2010, with help from Randolph & Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies became a playoff team. They’ve been there seven straight years now, which is quite the feat if you’re not one of the upper-echelon teams, and even if you are because everybody has a down year.

gritgrind

As a Nashville Predators fan, I can respect the hurdles that Memphis Grizzlies fans have to overcome. Being a fan in a non-traditional market is tough. Nobody takes you seriously because your team wasn’t around when the league was founded. You get scraps, and you have to take what you can get. When you get some kind of success, you want validation. You want respect. You want retired numbers. Even if the likes of Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Mike Conley & Marc Gasol don’t measure up to the guys in the Celtics’ rafters, the Lakers’ rafters or even the Brooklyn Nets’ rafters, you want something up there to represent your team’s history. Sure, it might take some time to get a championship banner. But you can retire a number pretty easy. I get it.

Maybe I need to lower my standards. People have been telling me that for years, but my response to them is that if I’ve waited this long to find a nice girl and get married I’m not going to settle for just anybody. We shouldn’t settle for just anybody when retiring numbers either. If we lower our standards and do it for everybody we like, pretty soon every team will be like the New York Yankees and out of single digit numbers. Eventually everybody would be wearing prison numbers. Nobody wants that.

 

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