Thursday, January 8, 2009

Giving Baldelli No. 5 does a disservice to the memory of Nomar

That fast? Really?

Check out this photo. You don't need to look all that closely. There's Terry Francona, grinning from ear to ear, looking at Rocco Baldelli like he's some kind of prodigal son. There's Theo Epstein, standing straight, his shoulders back, looking as proud as can be of either his handiwork or his snazzy Under Armour shirt. And there's Baldelli, looking every bit like a ballplayer, wearing a light blue shirt and a Red Sox cap on his head.

In his hands is a white jersey. On the back of that jersey is No. 5.

If that doesn't make you double-take, it should. If that doesn't make you a little bit upset, it should.

Here's what Baldelli had to say:
It was brought to my attention that obviously this has always been a special number in this town and I recognize that as much as anybody. It was brought to my attention that there was a possibility that I was going to be able to wear it. It being the number that I have worn my whole career. I accept it and I think it’s great and I am very happy about it.

You can't blame Baldelli; it's the number he's worn his whole life, and it apparently was offered to him. Of course he was going to wear it.

But you can blame an organization normally so cognizant of its history for messing this one up. No. 5 belongs to Nomar. No. 5 belongs to a player who was the Moses of the Red Sox organization -- he didn't get to the Promised Land, but he did as much as anyone to get them to the doorstep. He reinvigorated the franchise. He won back-to-back batting titles and a Rookie of the Year award. He played in five All-Star Games. He bridged the gap between the Red Sox of Scott Fletcher -- the last player to wear No. 5 before him -- to the Red Sox we know and love today.

No, the franchise never will retire No. 5 the way we once thought they might. A career once on the same track as Ernie Banks and Yogi Berra and Chipper Jones suddenly became derailed by an Al Reyes fastball and, many have whispered, a more stringent testing program for performance-enhancing drugs. He's not going to the Hall of Fame the way we thought he might after his back-to-back batting titles; he's not going to the Hall of Fame the way contemperaries Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are.

But he's still Nomar. And he's still one of the most important players in the history of the franchise.

No. 5 has been worn by 32 players in Red Sox history, including slugger George Scott and utilityman extraordinaire Denny Doyle. Scott wore it for seven seasons; no one else has ever worn it for more than five. Nomar wore it for nine seasons -- from his rookie season of 1996 until his stunning departure at the trade deadline in 2004.

And to give it away -- particularly this quickly after his departure -- flies in the face of Red Sox tradition. Here's a look at a handful of numbers that haven't been retired but have been used sparingly:
* No. 14, Jim Rice: Never worn again. The team likely was holding out for Rice to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and we'll find out this week if that happens.
* No. 21, Roger Clemens: Never worn again despite the bridges Clemens burned once upon his departure for Toronto and again upon his decision to become a Yankee.
* No. 24, Dwight Evans: Not worn from 1990, the year Evans was released, until it was given to Kevin Mitchell in 1996. This number, of course, went to Manny Ramirez in 2001 and again won't be worn for a while, if ever again.
* No. 45, Pedro Martinez: Has not been worn again -- and in case you're wondering, until Pedro left, it had been worn by a player or a coach in every season but two since 1973.

The example with Evans might be best; the team held onto it for six years and through two managerial changes before giving it away. That's what they should have done with No. 5. Six years would have been about right, in fact; give the number the rest of the decade off and then start fresh with someone wearing No. 5 in 2010.

Nomar was an icon, the most beloved position player the Red Sox had since Carl Yastrzemski. No, it didn't end well in Boston, but that's no reason to forget everything he did to lift the Red Sox from a perennial joke to perennial powerhouse. Does Pedro sign long-term without Nomar on the team? Does Manny? Without Nomar, do the Red Sox beat Cleveland in 1999 without his five hits in 12 at-bats -- including the two home runs that scared Mike Hargrove into twice intentionally walking him in front of Troy O'Leary? Do they rally against the A's in 2003 without Nomar's double in the eighth inning of Game 4?

It's sad the way such a beloved figure has been shoved aside. Yes, he probably was using something to help him to his .314 career batting average and 226 career home runs. No, he's not going to the Hall of Fame. But he made watching baseball at Fenway Park fun again. And giving Rocco Baldelli No. 5 barely four years after Nomar's departure is just another sign that he's already being forgotten.


floydiansea said...

I agree.

I still haven't retired the Brian MacPherson memorial Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. Several new cartoons have come and gone. But I figure we need to wait a good 5, 6 years before these come down and new ones get put up.

Well, maybe that isn't the best example to support your position.

If only Rocco was a dingo, then he could be one of the coolest cartoons ever on Nickelodeon.

You can even use that as a headline, I won't charge you: Rocco's modern strife.

Word: linaush

dbhammel said...

I agree that a precedent had been set with other BoSox greats of the past. In some of those cases the players left similar to the way Nomar did, some left more on an equal footing. However, and not to lay any blame here, because I think we became better post-Nomar as we may post-Manny, I think the great disrespect, on both sides was in the players exit.

Hows that for come fancy comma-ing.

Anonymous said...

Brian, I couldn't agree more.
Then again, you know my affinity for all things Nomar.
You sir, rock my face off.