|The ultimate number goes to ...|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
When I buy a lottery ticket, I always put my money on Cal Ripken, Ted Williams, Roger Clemens, Doug Flutie, Nolan Ryan and Jack Morris, with Willie Mays as my Powerball.
My phone number used to be Joe DiMaggio, Barry Bonds, Jimmy Chitwood, Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzemski. Before that it was Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Unitas, Sonny Sixkiller, Joe DiMaggio. Before that it was Bert Blyleven, Charlie Gehringer, Dave Whitenight, Magic Johnson.
My social security number is -- well, I'm not giving that out over the Internet. I may have picked the Cubs to win their division last season but I'm not a complete moron.
If you're like most fans, you not only know exactly what I'm talking about, you probably memorize your important numbers -- phone number, ATM card, computer password, lotto picks -- with the same method I use: by assigning them the jersey numbers of favorite players. And why not? It's the perfect way to memorize a number. Long after players retire, we still see them whenever we see their number.
Number 9? Ted Williams. Number 16? Joe Montana. Number 23? Michael Jordan. Number 99? Do you really have to ask?
Numbers are as much a part of a player's identity as his name (sometimes literally so, as in the case of the great University of Washington quarterback Sonny Sixkiller, who wore, naturally, No. 6). Numbers are so much a part of the player that the player doesn't even seem like the same person without them. Who could really blame Rickey Henderson for paying $25,000 to get his beloved No. 24 back after one of his many team changes? Doesn't it still seem weird to see Clemens wearing 22 after all those years as 21? Didn't Jordan seem like a different, inferior player while wearing No. 45?
How synonymous do the players and their numbers become? Consider the "Seinfeld" episode when George Costanza revealed to his fiancÚ Susan that he planned to name their first child Seven. "Seven Costanza?" Susan replied, "Are you serious?"
"Yeah. It's a beautiful name for a boy or a girl. Especially for a girl. ... Or a boy."
"I don't think so."
"What, you don't like the name?"
"It's not a name, it's a number."
"I know. It's Mickey Mantle's number. So not only is it an all-around beautiful name, it is also a living tribute."
George didn't win over Susan, which isn't surprising. I don't mean to sound sexist, but I think this is primarily a guy thing. When I mentioned this memory device to my wife, she looked at me as if I had just announced I was going to join the Raelins and clone humans. Heck, she couldn't even remember what number she wore while playing basketball in high school.
Me, I still remember what numbers I wore in Little League. Not that it's difficult. Our jerseys were always numbered 1-15 in order of size, small to extra-large. As the shortest player on almost every team I played on, I usually had the choice between No. 1 or No. 2, and I always chose No. 2 (Giants catcher Dick Dietz) because I never would have felt comfortable wearing No. 1 (scumbag Billy Martin) on my back.
The number I really wanted to wear though, was 24, the number worn by Willie Mays, my favorite player. I wanted to wear that number for every team I ever played on. And I never could. Either I was too small or the numbers didn't go that high or someone else had it first (and I didn't have enough money to buy it off him).
I cannot tell you how frustrating this was. Even when I played rec-league softball, I always had to settle for a second-class or third-class number like 11 or 18 instead of the greatest jersey number in American history.
That's right. Number 24 is better than all the others.
It's an odd thing about jersey numbers. In theory, every number, 1-99, is just as good as any other. But we know they aren't equal. We know that good baseball and basketball players never wear a number in the 60s or higher (with the exception of Carlton Fisk, Barry Zito and George Mikan). And we know that no pitcher worth anything would ever wear a single digit.
But it goes further than that. Some numbers are great and some are just plain bad.
During spring training two years ago, I compiled a list of the best baseball players for each number. With deadline approaching, the list was more or less complete, 1-56, but I couldn't think of anyone for 38, other than Rick Aguilera. Now, Aggie was a good closer and a good guy but hardly in the class of the other players on the list.
I asked Tim Kurkjian, also a huge fan of jersey numbers, if he could think of anyone, and he couldn't either. We discussed names and checked Web sites and called people and still couldn't come up with anybody. Finally, Tim had to leave to get to another game but he promised to call me as soon as he thought of someone.
He left and minutes later the Mariners came to bat in the bottom of the first inning against Arizona and the p.a. announcer said, "Pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Curt Schilling, No. 38."
At least No. 38 has Schilling. But why has no great player in any pro sport ever worn 48? (Torii Hunter, you have a golden opportunity.) I can understand, sort of, why there may not be any great players identifiable at 61, 69 or 76 -- after all, there are only so many linemen out there and no one ever pays attention to them anyway. But what's the deal with 18, which should be much better represented by a number worn by players in all sports, particularly by a lot of quarterbacks? (You blew it, Darryl.) Or 28, which also should be a great number (most in the 20s are) but isn't?
And while there are these odd random numbers that never get worn by great players for some reason, there also are numbers that are repeatedly worn by some of the greatest players ever -- 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 21, 24, 32, 34 and 44.
So how did I determine that 24 was the greatest jersey number?
Well, I could have determined this scientifically, objectively and dispassionately by adding all the career statistics of every player who ever wore a particular number, running them through Theo Epstein's computer system and assigning some "value" to each.
With that formula, I would probably give the top ranking to 32, the number worn by Jim Brown, Magic Johnson, Sandy Koufax, O.J. Simpson, Steve Carlton, Franco Harris and Bill Walton. Second place would go to 44 (worn by Hank Aaron, Jerry West, Willie McCovey and Reggie Jackson), followed by 3 (Babe Ruth, Bronko Nagurski, Harmon Killebrew, Alex Rodriguez and Allen Iverson), 21 (Roger Clemens, Frank Robinson, Sammy Sosa, Warren Spahn, Stan Mikita), 6 (Bill Russell, Julius Erving, Stan Musial and Al Kaline), and 12 (Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, John Stockton, Terry Bradshaw and Robbie Alomar).
But that method quantifies the players more than the number itself. To be sure, the players who wear a number are the major part in determining its appeal, but they are not the only factor. Remember, we're not simply asking how many great players wore a particular number, we're asking whether a number itself is special.
And 24 is. For one thing, it looks good on a jersey (single digits too often look lonely by themselves). But 24 is special for another reason.
Take a brief moment to picture Mays right now. Chances are, the image that formed in your mind is Mays racing toward the center-field wall at the Polo Grounds, his arms raised up like a wide receiver to catch Vic Wertz' mammoth flyball in the 1954 World Series. Along with Carlton Fisk waving his home run fair, it may be the most famous image in baseball history.
And what stands out is his jersey number. Because of that photo, 24 became forever synonymous with Willie Mays.
And it became synonymous with greatness as well.
Maybe I'm biased because Mays was my favorite player, but whenever I see a player wearing 24, I expect him or her to be the best player on the team, or at least among them. And he usually is. Ken Griffey Jr. wore it. So did Rickey Henderson. Dwight Evans wore it in Boston and now Manny Ramirez does. Bill Bradley wore it with the Knicks and Charles Woodson wears it for the Raiders.
It's like No. 10 in soccer, which usually goes to the best player out of respect to Pele. I think it's the same in baseball, only the players aren't even conscious of it. Nobody tells them this but somehow players just know that they have be worthy to wear 24. Nobody bad should ever be allowed to wear it.
Perhaps it will be the same way with 23 someday, thanks to the image of Jordan burying that final shot against Utah in 1998. Perhaps.
But for now, the greatest number remains 24.
Milk is no doubt spewing through the nostrils of my old softball teammates right at this moment. They know that the year we won the University of Washington intramural softball championship, I celebrated by buying flannel jerseys for the team. Everyone got their favorite number. Rags got 41 for Tom Seaver. Sarge got 14 for Ernie Banks. Wiggler got 9 for Graig Nettles. Boog got 26 for Boog Powell. Hot Rod got 4 for Lenny Dykstra. Scooter got 12 for Mark Langston. And I got 24.
And I swear, just wearing it on my back made me feel like I was a better player.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.