Yanks' number retirements raise questions
NEW YORK -- The criteria the Yankees use when they consider retiring a uniform number is not available to others in the baseball universe. Chances are it doesn't appear in a handbook printed in 1939, when the club rightfully put its No. 4 in mothballs to honor Lou Gehrig in a manner unprecedented in the game. I don't suppose the club consults the Elias Sports Bureau or the central baseball office before it removes a uniform number from circulation. Indeed, for decades I suspected that decisions of that nature were based on an impulse of some marketing guy or the whim of George Steinbrenner, mostly the latter.
The procedure doesn't appear to have all that much logic behind it.
Seven of the 15 numbers the Yankees have retired for players -- 14 if Billy Martin's No. 1 was decommissioned for his managing -- have been obvious choices: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Ford, Berra/Dickey and Rivera. Once Phil Rizzuto was elected to the Hall of Fame, retiring his No. 10 seemed appropriate. And because Thurman Munson had evolved into a critical contributor to the Yankees' renaissance in the 1970s and had been their captain -- the Yankees' first since Gehrig -- the decision to retire his No. 15 can't be questioned, either.
Questions about the others exist, though. And now the club has announced its intention to remove Andy Pettitte's No. 46, Bernie Williams' No. 51 and Jorge Posada's No. 20 from the roster of available numbers. Too many. But for years, the Yankees have lived by this principle: nothing succeeds like excess.
I can't quarrel with Pettitte, who has more postseason victories than any other pitcher and more victories with the Yankees, 219, than all pitchers other than Hall of Famers Red Ruffing and Ford. And Williams is conspicuously high on the Yankees' lists of the more significant offensive figures.
Derek Jeter's No. 2 being decommissioned is a foregone conclusion.
But Posada's achievements and value were something less. Steinbrenner's decision to retire No. 32 for Elston Howard, the team's first African-American player and a star, opened the door for catchers not named Berra, Dickey or Munson. And Posada had a fine career replete with critical hits and four rings he earned as a regular. But he wasn't comparable to Howard, Munson or Berra, each of whom won an American League Most Valuable Player Award -- Yogi won three -- and his career wasn't comparable to those of the other Core Four members -- Pettitte, Jeter or Rivera. Jeter and Rivera are Cooperstown certainties, and Pettitte warrants a close look. Some folks think Posada does too. I don't.
Retiring his number? If they must.
But how is it that Goose Gossage has a plaque in Cooperstown, based largely on what he accomplished with the Yankees, but no more than a plaque in Monument Park? At the same time, Paul O'Neill has a plaque in the Bronx. No problem with that. Posada deserves one, too. But retiring his number? If they must. But I do think his inclusion diminishes the honor.
And how is it that No. 1 was mothballed for Martin? His time as Yankees manager, the equivalent of just fewer than six seasons, produced merely two pennants, one World Series championship, a 10-10 postseason record and problems that exceeded Jeter's career hits total. Another Steinbrenner whim.
More egregious than Martin's inclusion is the exclusion of Joe McCarthy, who never had a uniform number with the Yankees. But he had other numbers -- eight pennants, seven World Series championships and two unfathomable winning percentages, .627 in 16 summers in the Bronx and .735 in 34 World Series games. McCarthy has a plaque in Monument Park, but a plaque clearly is less prestigious than a retired number. We learned as much last summer when Gossage was saluted only by a plaque. Goose's 54 is available.
The Yankees can't be citing McCarthy's lack of a uniform number as a reason. John McGraw and Christy Mathewson wore no numbers as well, but the Giants recognize them as equals of Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey.
Now that we've reached this point, there is one last point to be made. Willie Randolph deserves more than a plaque in Monument Park as he's been promised. He was, to me, a better second baseman than Posada was a catcher, and a better all-around player, too. He was a captain and the man who turned the double plays that made Tommy John, Guidry and Ed Figueroa 20-game winners. He was the slick, almost elegant second baseman who made plays and relays and never bailed on turning two.
Randolph was a top-of-the-order guy who could shrink the strike zone when it mattered most and hit a sacrifice fly on demand.
Randolph was a winning player for 13 seasons in the Bronx. He wore No. 30. So did Mel Stottlemyre, one of the five best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame. No. 30 is what reporters used to use to mark the end of a story they'd submitted. That said, the Yankees ought to salute Willie and Mel and retire No. 30.