Mo not alone in having number retired before retiring
Hall of Famers Robinson, Killebrew and more also experienced in-season ceremonies
Mariano Rivera walked onto the Yankee Stadium field last Sunday while Metallica played "Enter Sandman." It was sunny in the Bronx on the first day of fall, the place was packed and it was almost the last time to say goodbye.
After 19 seasons, all in pinstripes, it was the day for the great Rivera to be honored in the final week of his career. The farewell tour is just about over. Mo's new life outside baseball beckons.
But the Yankees decided that it was appropriate to bestow the club's highest honor on their longtime closer and baseball's all-time saves leader, and they didn't want to wait. Rivera's No. 42, which was already retired throughout the Major Leagues in 1997 to commemorate the life and career of Jackie Robinson, was retired with six games left in his career and placed in its rightful spot in Monument Park.
It's the rare diamond legend who achieves such an honor from a team, and even Rivera had to comment, albeit with a touch of trademark self-deprecation, on the occurrence of having a uniform forever put to rest by a franchise before it's been peeled off the player for the last time and sent to Cooperstown.
"While I'm still playing," Rivera said later that day, "I'm retired already."
Turns out he's not the only one who has experienced the phenomenon of a number-retirement ceremony with games still remaining to be played.
Not including Hall of Famers Stan Musial (Cardinals, 1963), Hank Aaron (Brewers, 1976) and Cal Ripken Jr. (Orioles, 2001), whose numbers were retired on the last day of the season in pregame ceremonies, here is the rest of yet another elite club that Rivera is joining.
Frank Robinson, Baltimore Orioles, No. 20, March 10, 1972
Robinson was 36 years old and had won his second career MVP Award and two World Series rings with the Orioles in his six seasons in Baltimore when the club decided to trade him to the Dodgers on Dec. 2, 1971. Months later, with Robinson's career still in flight (he would play his final game in 1976), his No. 20 was immortalized in Orioles lore as the first number retired by the franchise.
"His individual game performances are all a matter of record, but Frank contributed so much more to this ballclub, both on and off the field," Orioles manager Earl Weaver said that day. "He was a great morale booster and his competitiveness, his intelligence and his total commitment to winning baseball set fine examples for the younger players to follow."
Harmon Killebrew, Minnesota Twins, No. 3, May 4, 1975
Killebrew was the face of the Twins franchise, the most popular player in the team's history, when he was released by Minnesota after the 1974 season at the age of 38 with his career waning. Killebrew was signed for one final year by the Kansas City Royals, so the Twins thought it appropriate to wait until the Royals' first road trip to Minnesota to honor the man they called "Killer."
Killebrew received a standing ovation from the crowd and promptly responded by hitting a home run against his former team, the 564th long ball of his career.
"I really appreciate that Minnesota wanted to retire my uniform," Killebrew said that day. "It felt a little strange being in another uniform in the Twins' ballpark, but it was a very nice gesture."
Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardinals, No. 45, Sept. 1, 1975
There was another month left on the Cardinals' schedule when Hall of Famer Bob Gibson's number was retired at Busch Stadium, but Gibson, who always did things his way, had decided much earlier that year that his time in baseball was over.
In front of a sold-out crowd that moved him to the point of saying he'd never been that nervous -- "even in a World Series" -- Gibson was honored and spoke to express his gratitude.
"It's going to be a new life, a strange life for me," said Gibson, who was presented with a 30-foot mobile home by team board chairman August A. Busch Jr. and was read a letter from President Gerald Ford. "But I just hope that I can be half as successful as I have been in baseball. One thing I've always been proud of is the fact that I've never intentionally cheated anybody out of what they came to the ballpark to see."
Gibson went on to pitch one more inning two days later, capping a one-of-a-kind career.
Lou Brock, Cardinals, No. 20, Sept. 9, 1979
The Cardinals knew Lou Brock was (at the time) baseball's all-time stolen-base king. They knew he had 3,000 hits. They knew he was going to the Hall of Fame. So early in the '79 season, they scheduled Lou Brock Day for Sept. 9, and they retired his No. 20 right then and there.
Brock, who would play in 13 games after that celebration, was given a boat by Busch and a new car from KMOX radio as 47,000 fans and Brock's 80-year-old mother cheered. Brock gave the fans what they want when the game started, stealing a base in the first inning.
"I'm going to miss baseball," Brock told Family Weekly magazine two weeks before Lou Brock Day. "I've lived it. It's been my livelihood. Sports has shaped my life."
Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh Pirates, No. 8, Sept. 6, 1982
The Pirates' last day of the season was Oct. 3, but Pittsburgh decided to honor its 42-year-old captain, "Pops," with his own day on Labor Day at Three Rivers Stadium. So in front of 38,000 fans prior to the team's 6-1 victory over the Mets, Stargell's No. 8 was put to rest permanently.
President Ronald Reagan called to congratulate Stargell and commented on the future Hall of Famer's "decency and courage" and "compassion and humanity."
Bucs manager Chuck Tanner summed up the scene succinctly and perfectly, calling it, "one of the greatest days in Pittsburgh history."
Phil Niekro, Atlanta Braves, No. 35, Aug. 6, 1984
The veteran knuckleballer and future Hall of Famer and 300-game winner was the all-time winning pitcher in Braves history, having played 18 of his 20 seasons there. He was 45 years old when he signed with the Yankees prior to the 1984 season, and on an off-day for his new team, Niekro made the trip back to Atlanta to see his No. 35 retired.
"He set a great example not only on the field, of course, but off it with his spending time in the community and giving so much of himself to others," Braves owner Ted Turner said that day. "And Phil is a bright example to every young person and to every person in this whole country and in this whole worlds of ours."
An emotional Niekro, who was decked out in his old Atlanta jersey for the day, quoted Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind" and made the crowd a promise.
"I am a Braves fan and always will be," he said. "I came here in 1966, and I guarantee you we'll never leave the state of Georgia."
Harold Baines, Chicago White Sox, No. 3, Aug. 20, 1989
Baines was always the quiet type, never wanting the spotlight. The White Sox knew this, so they planned the ceremony to award his 10 years of solid production and leadership with a strategy of stealth. Baines was traded to the Texas Rangers on July 29, so when the Rangers came back to Comiskey Park for a four-game series the next month, the honor of having his No. 3 retired was bestowed before the Sunday getaway game.
Baines received a plaque, a gold watch and chain, a pearl necklace for his wife and a set of golf clubs. The whole thing was low-key, for a good reason.
"We felt that if Harold had known about it, he wouldn`t show up," White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said.
Baines was surprised, moved and, as usual, to the point.
"As you know, I`m a man of few words," Baines said to the fans. "But I am appreciative for all the great times in Chicago. Thank you very much."
Nolan Ryan, California Angels, No. 30, June 16, 1992
Nolan Ryan had been away from his Angels playing days for 13 years when the club for which he had set the single-season record for strikeouts (383 in 1973) decided to permanently retire his No. 30, and as it turns out, California was the first of a record three teams to retire his number. The Houston Astros and Texas Rangers would later retire the Hall of Famer's No. 34.
Ozzie Smith, Cardinals, No. 1, Sept. 28, 1996
The "Wizard of Oz" was 41 years old and headed to another postseason with the Cardinals when St. Louis decided to retire No. 1. There was a ceremony before a Saturday game at Busch a day before the regular season ended, and Smith received two new cars and a baby grand piano.
"I've often been asked what is my greatest highlight," the Hall of Famer said to the crowd. "Being here today with my family and 50,000 of my closest friends has to be the highlight."
With that, Smith went to his position, did his customary backflip, and another game began.