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Playing the numbers game

Players willing to pay to keep their identities

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001


Pick a number. Any number.

Sorry, it's taken. Try again -- or grab your wallet.

When White Sox catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. was "persuaded" to buy a computer for rookie catcher Josh Paul in order to keep the No. 15 he had worn for 11 seasons in Cleveland, he was simply following a tradition that has been around for generations.

He was keeping more than a number; he was keeping a piece of his identity, his "self."

For 13 seasons with the Red Sox, Roger Clemens wore No. 21. On Dec. 13, 1996, he signed with the Blue Jays. First baseman Carlos Delgado gladly surrendered No. 21. On the first day of spring training in Dunedin, Clemens gave Delgado a Presidential Rolex watch worth at least $15,000. "Just something to show my appreciation," Clemens told the Associated Press.

Two years later Clemens was traded to the Yankees. Wisely, he didn't ask outfielder Paul O'Neill for the same favor. O'Neill is wound tight enough as it is. Clemens was given No. 12. He kept it until July 25, when he went with his family's suggestion to switch to No. 22, his son Koby's number in Little League.

In 1990, Phillies first baseman John Kruk wore No. 28. The following year, Mitch Williams arrived from the Cubs, where he had worn No. 28. The left-handed closer wanted to take it with him.

As Kruk related in 1993 on The Late Show with David Letterman, "I saw where Rickey Henderson gave a guy $25,000 for a number. Well, I got two cases of beer. So Mitch got No. 28 ... because his wife had a bunch of jewelry with No. 28 on it. ... The best part about it is he got divorced, he wears No. 99 and the two cases of beer are gone."

Ah, yes. No. 99.

Turk Wendell wore No. 13 with the Cubs. When the relief pitcher and certified flake joined the Mets, second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo wore it. So Wendell switched to No. 99. Two years later, in 1999, Wendell signed a one-year contract for $1,200,000.99 (are we seeing a trend here?) with the potential for three bonuses of $4,999. "I want as many 99s in my contract as possible," Wendell said then.

Henderson began his major-league career wearing No. 35 in Oakland. When he was traded to the Yankees, Phil Niekro had it, so Henderson took No. 24 and kept it when he was traded back to Oakland in 1989. More accurately, he bought it back.

By then, pitcher Bob Welch was wearing No. 35 and catcher Ron Hassey had No. 24. Welch had worn No. 35 since his pro career began and, he said, he was not going to give it up.

Hassey never had bonded with his No. 24. "I've played for five teams and had a different number with each," he said then, "but it'll take a lot to give this one up." After a few weeks of negotiations, Henderson agreed to substitute for Hassey at an autograph session and retrieved his No. 24.

To keep it when he got to Toronto in 1993, the price had gone up; Henderson paid that $25,000 to Blue Jays outfielder Turner Ward for it.

Henderson signed a minor-league contract with San Diego this season. If he makes the Padres' roster, No. 24 is waiting for him.

On March 18, 1981, free-agent catcher Carlton Fisk signed with the White Sox after 11 seasons and one unforgettable World Series home run in Boston. He had worn No. 27. Pitcher Ken Kravec had it when Fisk got to Chicago. No problem, Fisk said. He reversed his No. 27 in Boston to No. 72 in Chicago. "It represents a turnaround in my career," he said then. Ten days later Kravec was traded to the Cubs. Fisk stuck with his new number.

When Roger Craig pitched for the Mets, he wore No. 38. As the 1963 season dragged on, he lost, and lost, and lost -- and in desperation, he changed to No. 13. After 18 consecutive losses, the streak ended with a victory over the Cubs. That done, Craig changed back to No. 38.

So how important is a number to a player? To most, not very. If he's traded and his old number is available, great. If not, he'll usually take whatever is left or assigned to him.

Then again, when Frank Viola was traded by the Twins to the Mets midway through 1989, Dwight Gooden was wearing Viola's No. 16.

How important was that number to Dr. K?

"I don't care how much money he makes," Gooden said of Viola then. "He can have my locker. I'll take him to all the best restaurants and show him New York. He can even have my wife. But he can't have my number. No way."

- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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