16 April 2007

Forced Retirement

Last night, Jackie Robinson's number took the field again, as the entire Dodger team wore 42. Both in the number they all wore, and it their play, the Dodger team evoked memories of Jackie Robinson in beating the Padres 9-3. They lashed hits everywhere, were patient at the plate, and stole bases.

Suppose it hadn't been Jackie Robinson night, and there were no festivities before the game, and only one Dodger, say, Russel Martin, was wearing number 42. The memory of Jackie Robinson still would have been evoked, as Martin went 3 for 4, with a steal and a walk. If Vinny had been broadcasting the game, he might have said: there was a number 42 for the Dodgers who used to play like this all the time. I think such a moment, if allowed to happen organically in the course of the season, and not just one one set aside night, would be a thrilling connection of past and present.

I am not saying that Jack Robinson is not worthy of the honor of having his number retired; instead I am ask why it is an honor at all? Where is the honor in seeing your number put out of action forever, hung on a wall? It might be true that no one could ever live up to number 42, but isn't it human nature to still try? After all, the players on other teams who used to wear 42 often did it to expressly honor Jackie, not to dishonor him. They did not do it to say they were as good as him, but to say that they aspired to be as good as him, on and off the field. I think it would be great to see, for example, Mike Cameron continue to wear 42.

I know that numbers will continue to be retired, presumably until all the one and two digit numbers are used up. It doesn't bother me too much, I guess; I just wonder what could be. What if we thought of each number not as belonging to a certain player, but as a heading under which new legends were continuously being written?

What if the following Dodger numbers, instead of being retired, had been later worn by another Dodger player? What new legends would be attached to each number?

Duke Snider --- 4 --- Shawn Green

The elegant swing of outfielder Shawn Green evokes memories of the elegant swing of oufielder Duke Snider. Number 4 has held the Dodger single season record for homeruns in two different cities.

Sandy Koufax --- 32 --- Eric Gagne

Batters never had a chance with Dodger number 32 on the mound. During his Dodger heyday, when Gagne took the mound in the ninth inning, the artistry and dominance of Koufax lived again.

Roy Campanella --- 39 --- Mike Piazza

In '95, '96, and '97, Mike Piazza recreated the offensive magic of Campy's '51, '53, and '55 campaigns. Few catchers before, since, or in between have produced such prodigious offensive numbers. Number 39 turned a usually offensively weak position into an offensive powerhouse.

Jackie Robinson --- 42 --- Kirk Gibson

In the fiery Kirk Gibson are echoes of Jackie Robinson's on field excellence. Each is a rare combination of speed, power, discipline and defensive skill. No, Gibson can't possibly compare to Robinson's bravery in integrating baseball. No one can. But Jackie's on field greatness should not be forgotten --- who better to evoke the moxie of stealing home plate than the man who scored from second base on a wild pitch? And there would be this: Number 42, responsible for the two greatest moments in Dodger history.

Don Drysdale --- 53 --- Orel Hersheiser

An impossible record is broken twice by Dodger number 53.

These are all fanciful pairings, obviously. Even if these numbers were not retired, these pairings probably would not have happened. It's impossible to have the foresight to determine which players are most worthy of receiving the numbers of retired legends. Sometimes a mediocre player would get the a legend's number. But I think that would be okay too. Even mediocre players can have moments of greatness. If, horrifyingly, Kevin Gross has worn 32, he still would have evoked Koufax for one day.

I enjoy seeing treasured Dodger numbers live on, seeing new Dodger legends written alongside the old under the same numerical header. In my youth, my favorite Dodger was Orel Hersheiser; now, it is Russel Martin. Number 55, Los Angeles Dodgers. May 55 play on forever.

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