Picking the best players whose numbers have yet to be retired in MLB
Pete Rose isn't getting into the National Baseball Hall of Fame anytime soon, but this weekend, the Reds will induct him into their own Hall of Fame. That ceremony will come as part of a weekend of festivities that will also include honoring the 40th anniversary of Cincinnati’s 1976 World Series champions and the retirement of Rose's No. 14.
It rates as a surprise that the Reds haven't already retired Rose's number, particularly given that they don't limit the honor to players enshrined in Cooperstown, as some teams do. In fact, there's no league-wide uniformity to this particular uniform issue, but the retirement of a number remains a team’s most visible tribute to its former players.
The Reds are hardly alone in having not gotten around to bestowing such honors upon obvious candidates; last month, I noted that the Mets hadn't done so for anyone from their 1986 World Series champions. In researching that article, my colleague Cliff Corcoran and I came up with a list of the most glaring omissions around the majors.
Alan Trammell (No. 3) and Lou Whitaker (No. 1), Tigers
The Tigers have generally pegged retiring a player’s number to his inclusion in the Hall of Fame, but they have made one exception: Willie Horton’s No. 23. The Detroit native, a four-time All-Star who played for the team from 1963 to ‘77, was not only one of the big bats from the Tigers' '68 championship squad but also became a civic icon for going into the streets while still in his uniform during the 12th Street Riot in ‘67, pleading for peace; the team has also honored him with a statue at Comerica Park.
All of which is to say that the Tigers shouldn't hesitate to honor Trammell and Whitaker. From late 1977 through ’95, the two played 1,918 games together, a record both for a double play combo and for AL teammates. Both players were key members of Detroit’s 1984 world champions and had Hall-caliber careers—they're around or above the JAWS standards at shortstop and second base, respectively—but have been snubbed by voters to an almost shocking degree. Trammell, whose case and career numbers are very similar to those of 2012 Hall of Fame honoree Barry Larkin, lasted 15 years on the ballot and maxed out at 40.9% in 2016, his final turn. Whitaker, meanwhile, fell off after receiving just 2.9% in 2001, his first year of eligibility, and since then, he has never had his case considered by the Veterans Committee or Golden Era Committee.
For that matter, the Tigers could consider retiring Hall of Fame near-miss Jack Morris's No. 47. Unlike those of Trammell and Whitaker, that number hasn't even been reused since the pitcher's 1977–90 tenure in Detroit.
Fernando Valenzuela (No. 34), Dodgers
Thirty-five years ago, a chubby, 20-year-old Mexican lefthander burst upon the major league scene. Though he had pitched 10 games out of the bullpen for the Dodgers the previous September, he was largely an unknown when he replaced the injured Jerry Reuss as the team’s Opening Day starter on April 9, 1981. Valenzuela not only threw a five-hit shutout against the Astros that day, but he also went on to rack up seven complete games and five shutouts in his first eight starts, good for a 0.50 ERA.
Fernandomania took the baseball world and Los Angeles by storm: He landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, became an icon to the city’s Latino community and drew fans of all backgrounds to parks around the country when he pitched. He started the All-Star Game for the NL, became the first pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in the same season, and helped the Dodgers win their first World Series since 1966. Valenzuela went on to earn All-Star honors five more times with L.A., for whom he pitched through 1990. Since 2003, he's been the color commentator for the team's Spanish-language radio broadcasts.
Like the Tigers, the Dodgers generally limit number retirements to Hall of Famers, with Jim Gilliam (No. 19) the only exception; he was part of four championship teams as an infielder and was serving as a coach when he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died the day after the team clinched the 1978 National League pennant. No Dodger has worn Valenzuela's number since he left the team, and it seems petty to keep it out of circulation without officially bestowing the honor.
Valenzuela not the only one whom the team should consider, either. As the anchor for four pennant winners in the 1970s and ‘80s, the members of the longest-running infield in baseball history—first baseman Steve Garvey (No. 6), second baseman Davey Lopes (15), shortstop Bill Russell (18) and third baseman Ron Cey (10)—are worthy as well.
Dan Quisenberry (No. 29), Royals
During the heyday of the relief fireman, Quisenberry was among the best, leading the AL in saves five times in a six-year span (1980–85) for the Royals, all while throwing upwards of 120 innings a year; his 45 saves in '83 briefly stood as the major league record. The free-spirited righty was also one of the most quotable, famously quipping about his submarine style of pitching, "I found a delivery in my flaw."
In a 12-year career that lasted from 1979 to ‘90 (and through ‘88 with Kansas City), Quisenberry made three All-Star teams, placed second and third in the AL Cy Young voting twice apiece and helped the Royals to four postseason appearances, two pennants and the 1985 world championship. Sadly, he died of a brain tumor at age 45 on Sept. 30, 1998. Of the three other numbers Kansas City has retired, one (No. 10) is for Dick Howser, the team’s manager from mid-1981 to mid-'86 before he died of a brain tumor himself in '87. Quiz is similarly worthy of such a memorial.
Ted Simmons (No. 23), Cardinals
The switch-hitting Simmons earned All-Star honors eight times during his 13-season run in St. Louis (1968–80) and gained a reputation as one of the game's best-hitting backstops. From 1971 to ‘80, he hit a combined .301/.367/.466, topping .300 six times while qualifying for the batting title—no small achievement for a catcher. When Simmons retired following the 1988 season (after stints in Milwaukee and Atlanta as well), he held the record for hits by a player who spent most of his career at catcher with 2,472—a mark later eclipsed by Ivan Rodriguez—and ranked fourth among all switch-hitters (he's now 10th).
Like Whitaker, Simmons is close to the JAWS standard for catchers (he's 10th all-time) but went one-and-done on the BBWAA ballot in 1994, with just 3.7% of the vote; he was bypassed by the Expansion Era Committee on the 2011 and ‘14 ballots. A spot in Cooperstown doesn't appear to be in his immediate future, but this is an honor of which he's eminently worthy.
Dave Stieb (No. 37), Blue Jays
When Jack Morris was on the Hall of Fame ballot, proponents of his case often cited the fact that he won more games, 162, than any other pitcher from 1980 to ’89. As with the rest of his case for Cooperstown, his status as "The Pitcher of the Eighties"—if that's a thing—is questionable based upon his run prevention and overall value. According to Wins Above Replacement, it was Stieb who was the decade's best pitcher, compiling an MLB-high 48.6 WAR and notching 140 wins, with clear advantages over Morris in ERA (3.32 to 3.66) and ERA+ (126 to 106). A seven-time All-Star for the Blue Jays—for whom he pitched from 1979 to ‘92, with a brief comeback in '98—Stieb is the franchise leader in pitching WAR (57.4), wins (175), innings (2,873), strikeouts (1,658) and shutouts (30). On Sept. 2, 1990, he threw the Jays' lone no-hitter against the Indians, that after coming within one out of doing so three times in 1988 and '89 (including on consecutive turns).
Chronic back problems prevented Stieb from reaching the career totals that would have given him a strong case for the Hall of Fame; he received just 1.4% of the vote in 2004. While the Blue Jays honored the 20th anniversary of his no-hitter on Aug. 29, 2010 by having him throw out the ceremonial first pitch and engraving his number on the mound, Stieb deserves to become the team’s second player to have his number retired, alongside that of second baseman Roberto Alomar (No. 12), the only player with a Blue Jays cap in the Hall of Fame.
Larry Walker (No. 33), Rockies
Walker first reached stardom with the dearly departed Expos, but it is the Rockies, for whom he starred from 1995 to 2004, who should honor this potential Hall of Famer. In 10 seasons in Denver, Walker won the NL MVP award, three batting titles and five Gold Gloves, helping the team to its first postseason appearance and league-leading attendance totals in Coors Field's first five years (1995–99). His 258 homers, 1,361 hits and 48.2 WAR all rank second to Todd Helton in franchise history; Helton, who spent his entire career with Colorado before retiring in 2013, is the only Rockies player whose number is retired.
If Colorado is waiting for Walker to reach Cooperstown before honoring him, it could be awhile. Despite ranking 10th among rightfielders in JAWS, he has never received more than 22.9% of the vote in his six years on the ballot, and he was down to 15.5% in 2016. He deserves better, both from Hall voters and from the Rockies.
Edgar Martinez (No. 11), Mariners
The Mariners have already named one of the roads near Safeco Field "Edgar Martinez Drive" in recognition of his 1995 Division Series-winning RBI double, which helped turn public sentiment toward funding the ballpark and helped keep the team in Seattle. Once the Mariners retire Ken Griffey Jr.'s No. 24 in August—the first in franchise history, for the first player to have a Seattle hat on his Cooperstown plaque—it will be time to turn attention to the second one.
Martinez is a more than worthy candidate. In addition to being a two-time batting champion and seven-time All-Star during his 18-year run with the Mariners (1987–2004), Martinez is the franchise’s career leader in games (2,055), runs (1,213), doubles (514), RBIs (1,261), walks (1,283) and on-base percentage (.418) and ranks second in hits (2,247, behind Ichiro Suzuki), batting average (.312, again trailing Ichiro) and home runs (309, trailing Griffey). Like Walker, Martinez is stuck in Hall of Fame ballot limbo, though after receiving 43.4% of the vote in 2016, his seventh year of eligibility, there exists at least a glimmer of hope for his eventual election.
Barry Bonds (No. 25), Giants; Roger Clemens (No. 21), Red Sox/(No. 22), Yankees; Mark McGwire (No. 25), A's/Cardinals; Sammy Sosa (No. 21), Cubs
Speaking of Hall of Fame limbo, these four players aren't getting elected anytime soon. McGwire is off the ballot, Sosa could suffer the same fate within a couple of years, and Bonds and Clemens are still a long way from the necessary 75% needed for enshrinement. While many will always hold their PED-related transgressions against them, these four came at a time before the game had a cohesive policy to prevent such use and were particularly revered by their teams' fan bases at the height of their Cy Young/MVP-winning/record-setting prowess, though Clemens' departure from the Red Sox and resurfacing with the Yankees understandably changed the tenor of his relationship with Boston, as did Sosa's unseemly exit from the Cubs.
As we gain distance from a period that was the result of a complete institutional failure on the part of the players' union, the owners, the commissioner and the media, it would be good to see some closure for these players and the fan bases they undeniably thrilled.
Derek Jeter (No. 2), Yankees; Ivan Rodriguez (No. 7), Rangers; Jim Thome (No. 25), Indians
These players are eminently worthy of their numbers being retired, but with their respective Hall of Fame elections looming, it's understandable why their teams might wish to wait. Rodriguez will be on the 2017 ballot, with Thome first eligible the next year and Jeter for the '20 ballot. (Mariano Rivera isn’t Hall-eligible until 2019, but the Yankees retired his No. 42 during his farewell season in 2013 because the number had already been retired across the majors in honor of Jackie Robinson in 1997).
In case you’re curious, the 2016 electees either have (Griffey) or soon will (Mike Piazza, the Mets, No. 31, on July 30) see their numbers retired. Likely 2017 honorees Jeff Bagwell (the Astros' No. 5) and Trevor Hoffman (the Padres' No. 51) have already been so honored.