Deciding whether or not to retire numbers can present a dilemma for professional sports teams. What is the criteria for taking a number out of circulation to honor a franchise great and ensure that no other player will ever wear it again?
Should the standard for retired numbers be the Hall of Fame? That’s certainly one way to go. Perhaps it’s the easiest too. It takes the burden away from that particular sports team and places it on the voting body for that Hall of Fame. But certain players can be considered among the best in franchise history without affirmation from the Baseball Writers Association of America, for instance. Others may warrant special consideration because of the place they hold in franchise history and among a particular team’s fanbase.
But if a team doesn’t set some sort of measure for retiring numbers, the lack of specific guidelines can create some uncertain, uncomfortable territory. That’s apparently where the Astros find themselves now, following a ceremony on April 5 to honor Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. Both players followed what’s become a popular celebratory gesture in sports, signing a one-day contract with the Astros so they could retire as a member of that team.
The Astros didn’t retire Berkman’s No. 44 and Oswalt’s No. 17, but it seems like the natural next step. Yet if Berkman and Oswalt have their numbers retired, what about Jeff Bagwell’s No. 5 and Craig Biggio’s No. 7? Those two would seem to take precedence, especially if Biggio is voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame next year. Bagwell could eventually follow.
Here’s where the problem truly develops for the Astros, however. The team has already retired nine numbers in the franchise’s 52-year history. (Actually, 10 numbers are retired, if you include Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, retired throughout MLB.) That’s a pretty high total, especially considering only one of the honored players — Nolan Ryan — is in the Hall of Fame.
By comparison, the Mariners haven’t retired any, excluding Robinson’s. The Rangers have retired two. Just to pick another couple of teams randomly, the Padres have retired five numbers, while the Royals have honored three.
So at some point, the Astros would seemingly have to draw a line on deciding whether or not to retire any more numbers. Yet as former pitcher and manager Larry Dierker points out, the team didn’t really hold a high standard for the honor before. Mike Scott was one of the best pitchers in Astros history, with an NL Cy Young Award, 20-win season and no-hitter on his résumé. In 1986, he led the majors with a 2.22 ERA, 306 strikeouts, 275.1 innings pitched and five shutouts. However, a five-year run of excellence over a 13-year career isn’t Hall of Fame worthy.
Of course, if the Astros consider him one of their greatest players, why not retire his number? But Dierker (No. 49) and J.R. Richard (No. 50) achieved similar numbers and either hold franchise records or are among the team’s all-time leaders in several categories. Why aren’t their numbers retired?
Faced with this dilemma, Houston Chronicle columnist Jose de Jesus Ortiz proposed a solution for the Astros: reintroduce some of those retired numbers. Jim Umbricht, for example, only pitched in Houston for two seasons. But the team retired his No. 32 as a tribute after he died from cancer. Can the Astros really go back and un-retire his number? How do you explain that to his family, friends, teammates and fans? Well, we thought he was good enough once, but other players were better, so we’d rather retire their numbers instead.
Perhaps the Astros could pull this off if they came up with a different way to honor those players, such as putting their names on a ring of fame or creating a team Hall of Fame. But it’s still tricky territory to navigate.
The best solution might be for the Astros to follow an example established by the University of Michigan football program. Michigan had five numbers retired, but also several numbers (such as No. 1) that had been worn by more than one distinguished player. How could the Wolverines honor some of their all-time greats without taking numbers out of circulation?
In 2012, they put three of those numbers — Nos. 48, 47 and 87 — back on the field, calling them “Michigan Legends” and honoring them with a commemorative patch on the jersey. Desmond Howard’s No. 21 wasn’t retired, but given “legend” status, so players can still wear that number. The honor is still noted with a patch and the current player wearing that particular number presumably has a responsibility to live up to its legacy.
This would allow teams like the Astros to have it both ways. The number is “retired,” yet can still be used by the team. It might be an even better way to honor such players. Instead of only being on a wall at Minute Maid Park, a commemorative patch on a current player’s jersey can travel around the majors and gain new recognition when it’s seen by fans in other ballparks or on television. Explanations of the honored player and his accomplishments would be continually explained to new audiences.
But most importantly, Houston doesn’t have to create a rigid standard for retiring numbers. If the team wants to restrict the honor to Hall of Famers, it can apply that benchmark. But the guidelines could be expanded to include those who had great careers with the Astros, but not necessarily Hall of Fame careers. Fan favorites could even be honored if the team so chose, though it would have to consider whether or not that diminishes the practice. That’s what got the Astros in this mess in the first place.