Manager Numbers (AL Edition)

Jim Harbaugh throwing out a first pitch … while wearing Mark Fidrych’s famous №20

Saturday, I introduced the concept of “Manager Numbers” as a way to honor players who were special to the franchise but perhaps not quite good enough to actually have their numbers actually retired. The idea would be that the manager, and maybe the coaches, would wear the number in honor of those unique players.

There are various logistical problems with the idea, I realize, but it really is less an idea than it is an excuse to talk about a few players who were great and unique but will probably not have their numbers retired. It feels to me that these are players who should be recognized in a larger way.

One interesting suggestion a brilliant reader sent in was for teams to officially unofficially retire the number — that is to say not let anyone wear it unless there is a special reason. Maybe a current player would only get to wear that number with the approval of the original player. I like that idea. Connects generations. And teams already do unofficially retire numbers; the Brewers, for example, don’t give out Jim Gantner’s №17.

Anyway, the point is not the number. It’s the player. Saturday, I listed off players for National League teams. Today: American League.

American League East

New York Yankees: Roy White’s №48 (№6)

The Yankees retire numbers the way the Washington Capitols break hearts. It takes mathematical endurance to find a number the Yankees HAVE NOT retired. Roy White is the perfect fit for this concept; he was a wildly underrated player because the good stuff he did was not too noticeable. He never hit .300, but he walked so much that his lifetime OBP of .360 is better than many stars, even Hall of Famers. He stole some bases, he hit some home runs, he played solid defense, he showed up every day.

White wore №6 but (of course) that number is already retired. I told you: It’s not easy to find open numbers in New York. №6 was retired for Joe Torre. White wore №48 early in his career, so the Yankees could do something with that I suppose.

Baltimore Orioles: Mark Belanger’s №7

Mark Belanger was famous in his time for his utter inability to hit. He hit .228/.300/.280 for his career — that means several years he was even worse than that. He still played in more than 2,000 games which tells you just how impossibly great he was as a defensive shortstop. He might have been the greatest defensive shortstop in American League history.*

*Here is a perfect example of officially unofficially retiring a number. Belanger last wore №7 in 1981. The only Baltimore player since to wear the number was Billy Ripken for one season in 1988 — and that (I imagine) was only so he would line up with his brother’s №8.

Boston Red Sox: Dwight Evans’ №24

I have no earthly idea why most Boston fans don’t scream and fight and push to get Dewey more recognition — the way they did with Jim Rice. Dewey, like Roy White, did so many things well — he walked a ton, hit with power, won a bunch of Gold Gloves — and yet his Hall of Fame case was a non-starter and his number hasn’t been retired even though the Red Sox LOVE retiring numbers (Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek, Johnny Pesky, etc).

Players who have worn №24 since Dewey: Kevin Mitchell, Shane Mack, Mike Stanley, MannyBManny, Takashi Saito, David Price.

Tampa Bay Rays: Carlos Peña’s №23

Peña’s 2007 season is probably STILL the greatest offensive season in the history of the Rays’ franchise. It was insane — he hit .282/.411/.627 with 46 homers, 99 runs, 121 RBIs and 135 runs created.

Toronto Blue Jays: Jesse Barfield’s №29

In my MLB piece about which numbers teams might retire next, I suggested Dave Stieb’s №37 for the Blue Jays. Twelve different players have worn that number since Stieb retired — from Alvarez to Storey. That’s kind of a sad storey. But for this special recognition, I’d offer up Barfield, who wasn’t just a great player. He was an impossibly FUN player. That arm. Nobody who watched baseball in the 1980s will ever forget Jesse Barfield’s arm.

American League Central

Minnesota Twins: Frank Viola’s №16

Sure, he won 24 games and the Cy Young Award in 1988. Sure, he won Games 1 and 7 in the crazy 1987 World Series. Sure, he was one of the best pitchers of the 1980s. But realistically he gets here just for the above baseball card. Hey Frank, OK, we’re going to take your photo — just look like you’re relaxed, OK?

Cleveland: Kenny Lofton’s №7

Of course I wanted to put Duane Kuiper’s №18 here … or Rick Manning’s 28 (which he changed to Number 20 so that Bert Blyleven could have 28) or Buddy Bell’s №25. But part of the mission here is finding insanely underrated players, and Lofton fits the bill. His Hall of Fame case never went anywhere even though there is a real case. He’s unquestionably one of the greatest players in Cleveland history and the Tribe has been handing out his №7 to basically anyone who shows up at camp — the last three years, the number has been worn by David Murphy, Collin Cowgill and Yan Gomes. At least UNOFFICIALLY retire that number already.

Detroit Tigers: Lou Whitaker’s №1 and Alan Trammell’s №3

OK, when I thought up this still developing idea, I had two very specific players in mind. One is the aforementioned Jim Gantner; I think there should be a way for the Brewers to honor Gantner without actually retiring his number. He was hugely important to the organization. But he was not a great player.

The other is Mark Fydrich. The Tigers can’t retire Fydrich’s №20, not really, he only had one full season in the big leagues. But that one season was so awesome, so memorable, so much a part of Tigers history that, they should do SOMETHING for that number. I mean 25 different players have worn 20 in Detroit since Fydrich and they’re a mishmash of good, mediocre and strange (Doug Strange). That’s not right. That number should mean something.

But I can’t really justify writing about The Bird until the Tigers do the right thing and retire Whitaker’s and Trammell’s numbers, preferably on the same day, preferably tomorrow. I have no idea how two all-time greats who played together and won together have been so criminally unappreciated. Let’s just get this done.

Chicago White Sox: Wilbur Wood’s №28

The White Sox are their own particular challenge because they retire numbers a warp speed. Seriously, if you go to five White Sox games as a fan they might retire your number. And yet, in their flurry to retire just about every number — Mark Buehrle’s 56 gets retired this year — they overlooked Wood, who was ridiculous for them in the early 1970s (376 innings pitched in 1972!) and probably should have won at least one Cy Young Award.

Kansas City Royals: Bo Jackson’s №16

He wasn’t necessarily a great player. He was sometimes great. He was sometimes raw and not great. But …


And so on.

American League West

Houston Astros: Joe Sambito’s №35

Nominated by one of the Astros’ biggest fans — Sambito was a superb reliever for the Astros. And Sambito is one of the most fun names in baseball history. Now entering the game: Joe Sam-beeeeeeeeeeee-to.

Texas Rangers: Buddy Bell’s №25

The above baseball card is one of the most heartbreaking of my childhood — when the Tribe traded Buddy Bell to the Rangers. Why? For Toby Harrah, no less. Why? Buddy was a sensational player for the Rangers, pretty close to Hall of Fame caliber. He hit .301/.358/.445 and won six Gold Gloves, all deserved.

Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout’s №27

Mike Trout is so good that even HE should not be allowed to wear his own number anymore.

Los Angeles Angels: Chuck Finley’s №31

OK, let’s do this for real. Finley was an excellent pitcher for 14 seasons in Anaheim, absurdly underrated, gave you 200-plus innings every year, an above-league average ERA, lots of complete games, total workhorse.

Seattle Mariners: Jay Buhner’s №19

The Mariners are finally beginning to retire some numbers — first Ken Griffey’s number was retired and this year Edgar Martinez’s number gets put away. You would think eventually Ichiro and Randy Johnson will co-retire №51. Buhner wasn’t quite a “retired number” kind of player, but he was Mr. Mariner. He played in Seattle for 14 seasons, hit all but three of his 310 home runs there. He won a Gold Glove. And he was just a beloved guy.*

*I love that Jay Buhner attempted to steal 30 bases … and was caught 24 times. That 20% stolen base percentage makes him MORE wonderful, not less.

Oakland Athletics: Sal Bando’s №6

I wonder if the A’s will ever retire Bando’s number. At this point, they only seem to retire Hall of Famer numbers (along with owner Walter Haas) … Bando was not quite a Hall of Famer. But close. Darned close.

He’s yet another guy who did all those little things so well. He hit just .254 for his career, but he walked a ton. He slugged just .408 for his career but he played in the worst hitting ballparks in a time dominated by pitchers. He played magnificent defense but never won a Gold Glove. Bill James has said that Darrell Evans is the most underrated player in baseball history, and that’s probably true because he checks all the boxes. But Bando is in the picture.