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A lot of history, honor in a number

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

Nobody will ever again wear 9 for the Red Sox, the Ted Williams number. Digits of respect are voluminous in sports, from the 3 of Dale Earnhardt's race car to the 3 of Babe Ruth's uniform.

There won't be another 6 playing for the Celtics, Bill Russell having squeezed all the greatness from that jersey, like Stan Musial as 6 for the baseball Cardinals and Julius Erving, another prodigious basketball 6 for, appropriately, the Sixers.

Numbers become akin to sacred. Retired amid hurrahs. Tucked away in honor of achievers now gone from arenas. Warm, rich memories with future generations entrusted with history preservation.

Not everyone is so moved.

Steve Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy as a Florida quarterback, so his 11 was deactivated in respect. Two dozen years later, after becoming Gators coach in 1990, S.O.S. put his old number back to work, though it seemed odd to see 11 worn by linebacker Ben Hanks.

Maybe that's why, as rookie coach of the Redskins, there was no Spurrier objection when Shane Matthews, another ex-UF quarterback who played under Steve in Gainesville, requested 9. He wore the number as amateur and pro.

Then came an uproar.

In the business of Washington football, 9 adamantly belongs to Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, now a Redskins broadcaster and the coziest of confidants with team owner Dan Snyder. Outcries from public and media vibrated through the Beltway.

Matthews, hearing the yelps and feeling the heat, turned his numeric wishes upside down and was smart enough to instead pull on uniform 6. Jurgy had earned 9 for Redskins eternity.

If, some steamy Florida summer, a gifted rookie appears in Bucs camp with a demand for his old collegiate 63, the kid immediately should be informed Lee Roy Selmon brought Hall of Fame excellence to that Tampa Bay jersey. "Pick again!" Non-negotiable.

Uniform numbers can trigger controversies, even investigations. When the Yankees signed Cuban exile Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the pitcher requested jersey 26.

Many numbers have been retired through 80 years of Bronx baseball grandeur, but Hernandez wasn't asking for the 4 of Lou Gehrig, the 5 of Joe DiMaggio, the 7 of Mickey Mantle or anything so unfathomable.

Still, when El Duque buttoned up 26, some Cubans in the United States fretted that it might be a tribute to the 26th of July movement, recalling a failed 1953 revolt led by Fidel Castro, which resulted in his imprisonment.

Critics wondered if El Duque might be a closet Communist or even a Castro spy. It was eventually accepted that the Yankee wanted 26 because his father had worn the number as a baseball player, and El Duque had 26 with the Cuban national team.

Jaromir Jagr, before he was a Pittsburgh hockey darling, was a dedicated son of old Czechoslovakia. Jagr selected 68 as his Peguins number in honor of 1968, the year his grandfather died and Soviet tanks came blustering to torment his homeland.

Numbers can energize our memories. Bringing tears and smiles. Recalling wonderworks of bygone aces. You see 4 hanging from a FleetCenter rafter and Bruins great Bobby Orr skates again through your mind, or if it's 33 of the Celtics, you envision Larry Bird making another game-winning jump shot.

Magic Johnson was fabulous wearing 33 at Michigan State, but as a Lakers newcomer there had to be change, because 33 belonged to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Earvin dropped down by one and established his legend as a pro, not unlike 32s that are so easily dug from our subconscious, including Jim Brown, Sandy Koufax, Franco Harris and, even now, O.J. Simpson.

There also was a 32 retired by the New Jersey Nets, in thanks for what the same Erving, as a younger Dr. J, did for that franchise before it moved from the failing ABA to the NBA.

Major League Baseball, which has done so many things wrong, was more than right in retiring 42 from the American and National leagues, because Jackie Robinson wore it for the Dodgers as the first African-American allowed to play.

Retirement of numbers can be confusing. I'm not sure 7-foot-4 behemoth Mark Eaton was good enough to have his 53 put away, but that's what the Utah Jazz decided. Couldn't the Atlanta Falcons have done better than William Andrews, a short-term runner of moderate acclaim whose 31 is immortalized?

I'm surprised the only jersey retired from the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins is the 12 of quarterback Bob Griese. Weren't the 'Fins impressed enough in south Florida by the 39 of Larry Csonka? Let's see, what did Larry Little wear? Miami's franchise did act quickly, and appropriately, to honor the 13 of Dan Marino.

Back at Andrew Jackson High School in Jacksonville, they never got around to retiring the 7 uniform worn by me in Tigers basketball so long ago. Sadly, it's on merit.

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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