Just in time: The history of retired numbers, and who should be next

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In the history of Major League Baseball through June 29, 2016, 183 numbers have been retired by 28 franchises. All teams in baseball have retired #42, for Jackie Robinson. Three teams have retired one additional number (the Mariners #24 for Ken Griffey, Jr., the Blue Jays #12 for Roberto Alomar, and the Rockies #17 for Todd Helton). Toronto and Seattle have been around much longer(1977) than Colorado(1993). The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays have retired two numbers each outside of Robinson. They have been in existence for 18 years, apiece.

Aside from 42, the Texas Rangers have also retired two numbers.

Two.

In 44 seasons.

No team with such a long lineage has such an exclusive fraternity.

The Express

 

The first retired Ranger number is Nolan Ryan‘s 34, whom Joe Stroop profiled far better than I could do here at SDI.

In short: he was The Franchise. The man who became the first statue for and a walking monument to Texas. A testament to what it means to all who came after to be a Texas Ranger. The Legend.

Beyond that, his Hall of Fame plaque (the first and only to feature a Rangers cap) says it all:

“A fierce competitor and one of baseball’s most intimidating figures on the pitching mound for four decades. His overpowering fastball and unparalleled longevity produced 324 victories and a host of major league records. Lifetime benchmarks include 5714 strikeouts, seven no-hitters and 12 one-hitters in 27 seasons pitched. Led league in strikeouts 11 times and fanned 300 batters in a season on six occasions, including a record 383 in 1973. Strikeout victims totaled 1,176 different players. A Texas legend whose widespread popularity extended far beyond his native state.”

Says it all…like that ever stopped me from going on.

Writing about Nolan is freaking fun. It’s as fun as hitting of him was miserable. Due to a video screen batting cage and a machine dialed up to 95, I experienced that once. The foul ball I squibbed into the left handed batters box is one of my career highlights. Then again, the machine doesn’t cool your coconut with fastballs inside either.

With the Rangers from 1989 to 1993, Ryan threw two no-hitters along with recording his 5,000th strikeout and wining his 300th game. His 1989 season is even more wondrous n our sabermetric era: 5.1 WAR, followed by 5.2 two seasons later; at ages 42 and 44. His three best WHIP (Walks plus hits per innings pitched) seasons came from 1989-1991.

August 22, 1989 will always be special to me, because watching on a grainy picture with the signal fading in and out, I saw Nolan strike out Rickey Henderson for #5,000. That moment moved me from being a fan to a fanatic about the game. Two years later, on May 1, 1991, he struck out the aforementioned Alomar for no-hitter #7 and I, like many kids that day, became ageless. I was 11 and yet one with adults;  we were equal in our awe. That same year, I threw a one-hitter and struck out all but one hitter in a Little League game. I threw a four seamer, a curve, and what I thought was a circle changeup. I grew up , like thousands of other kids all over America, over-kicking believing it would somehow add speed. I watch video now, realizing how much that made me look like a stork ducking its head. At the time, in my mind, I was the spitting image of Big Tex.

His numbers are stark and almost unbelievable; Ryan was the only pitcher to strike out 16 or more batters after the age of 40, doing so three times.  He led the league in strikeouts with the Rangers every season from 1989 to 1991; remember, this was the prime of Roger Clemens.

No matter.

He also pitched after taking a Bo Jackson comebacker to the mouth, and basically hogtied a mound charging Robin Ventura. He probably sold more posters in Texas than anyone since Farrah Fawcett.

He’s the fastest pitcher in major league history. The documentary Fastball used physics to prove it. In 1974, pitching for the Angels and at well over 140 pitches for the game, Nolan was clocked at 100.9 MPH in the 9th inning in Anaheim. The reading was taken at home plate via a device set up by Rockwell Collins engineers. Extrapolated using distance calculations to today’s guns, which measure speed around the release point, Nolan would be clocked at 108.5. For comparison Aroldis Chapman, the undisputed king of speed, tops out at 104, 105 at his best. That’s at the extreme limit of what the human mind can actually see, visualize, track, and project over 60 feet.

Nolan insists he threw harder than on that day.

So there were days where Nolan was, by the limits of the human eye-to-brain physiology, unhittable.

Literally unhittable.

The last fastball he ever threw, in Seattle in 1993 when his elbow popped, was clocked at 98 MPH. He tried one more changeup and was done. The crowd in Seattle gave him a five-minute standing ovation, until he re-emerged from the clubhouse to tip his cap one last time.

Some spikes are too big to fill. Such were his.

Johnny

 

The second along the facade is 26. THE manager. Johnny Oates.

I won’t spend as many words on him as the others in this column. That just seems fitting to me. He’d appreciate that, and it also represents how he was. Many men have lived longer. Many men have managed longer. Fewer have done either with such meaning in the time they were given. Johnny was the first manager to take the Rangers to the post season, and he did thrice. Every October, he ran into the juggernaut of the Yankees’ dynasty. If you want to know Oates, take it from one of the sternest judges of men Rangers fans have ever seen, Buck Showalter. Buck played for Johnny when Buck was a prospect in the Yankees system and Johnny managed the Yankees AA Southern League affiliate  to a league title.

“He’s the best I ever played for,” Showalter said of Oates. “Just the whole package. … He’s the most ethical, moral man I’ve ever been around.”

If ever a man had his number retired on account of humanity, it was Johnny Lane Oates. Still, that sells him far short. He brought a lot of head and heart to the game he loved. He won 506 games and 5 million hearts, including every man on every 25-man roster he ever managed. You don’t need to look it up, just ask around. You’ll know those who knew and remember him by the smile in their voice and the moisture in their eye.

So there’s no light task in retiring numbers here. We’re not the Yankees. We don’t have a Monument Park, or a century of history and 29 trophies bedecking the halls. We haven’t retired enough numbers to essentially take up a roster. There’s meaning to it.

That’s why the next one can only be for someone iconic and then some. For that, we need to officially hang up #7.

Pudge

 

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez,#7, is the greatest Ranger of them all.

Pudge hit .304 with 217 homers and 842 RBI in 1507 career games as a Ranger. He is second in club history in hits (1,747), doubles (352), and multi-hit games (490), ranks third in at bats (5,754), triples (28), and homers, and places fourth in games, runs (866), RBI, total bases (2,806), and extra base hits (597) from 1991 to 2002, and again in 2009.

Rodriguez was the 1999 American League Most Valuable Player. In the last Texas playoff season before 2010, Pudge hit .332 with 35 homers and 113 RBI. He hit .300 or better in each of his final eight seasons with the Rangers, started nine consecutive All-Star games, and won ten consecutive gold gloves with the Rangers during the first half of his legendary career. As a testament to his all-around excellence, he is the all-time major league leader with 2427 games caught while earning an all-time record 13 Rawlings Gold Gloves, hitting .300 or better in 10 seasons and 20 home runs in five, and throwing out nearly 42% of runners attempting to steal in his career.

Consider this: at the time of his retirement, Pudge ranked with Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, George Brett, and Stan Musial as the only players in major league history with career minimums of a .295 batting average, 2800 hits, 550 doubles, 300 home runs, and 1300 RBI.

Now, the elephant in the room.

I know the rumors. I know he was built like a fireplug of muscle by the late 1990s, and became a power hitter like few scouting reports judged him to be. I know what Jose Canseco wrote in his book.

I also know I saw the man in person at 19, before Canseco had ever sniffed the home clubhouse. I read stories of a 19-year-old Pudge doing medicine ball squat thrusts in the clubhouse tunnel after games at 19 and 20, before he ever knew Jose. I know I saw him before he ever filled out and he was a rock then, just skinnier. Growth HAPPENS in your mid 20s.

If there’s truth to the innuendo it’s the worst I’ve ever heard anyone say about Pudge Rodriguez; that’s saying something. Given that there are men who have done far worse with their likenesses in bronze in upstate New York, I’ll take my chances to honor Pudge at The Ballpark.

The kid in me wants to believe; the adult in me remember that I believed when Raffy wagged his finger at Congress without a hint of doubt in my mind or heart.

I know where that led.

If he came out tomorrow and said he’d used PEDs every day of his 10 years in Texas, he’d still be the best catcher I ever saw. You’ll never convince me Nolan Ryan strolled right past the “leaded” (amphetamine-laced) coffee or popcorn bowl’s worth of greenies in the clubhouse every single day of his big league career, given that they were as prevalent as towels in locker rooms throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

What Pudge did, he did prodigiously well. At worst, he did what he had to do to keep up with the league. At best, he was the best without anything more than blood, sweat, and pine tar. I’ll take my chances.

Murph

 

With Pudge on its side alone, #7 is epic. Then the number got heartier, and a bit better, thanks to Murph.

During his seven years with the Rangers, David Murphy played 826 games; he batted .275 with 85 homers and 362 RBIs.  He was the team’s Rookie of the Year in 2007, placed 10th in the A.L. with a career best .304 average in 2012, and appeared in 27 post-season games from 2010-12.

Those numbers fail to capture Murph.

The Baylor alum was a fan favorite from Day 1 in Texas, and held tremendous respect in the clubhouse. He was the positional and spiritual successor to Rusty Greer. As Elvis Andrus said before he was honored on June 24th:

“He was amazing. Everybody loved David, man. Amazing teammate, great player — professional.”

Those are pretty gaudy numbers for a number.

They ought to be honored, and soon.

You don’t have to put a name next to it, but you should. Pudge made the number; Murph just made it a bit more meaningful.

If you really want to do both men justice, put it up there with Pudge’s name next to it. Let it belong to Pudge for the ages. Let the honor and respect it carries belong to Murph for the lifetime that he lives in our hearts.

Both would be fitting honors to the men that wore #7.

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Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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