During this past Friday’s Colorado Buffaloes at Nebraska Cornhuskers Big XII college football game, the home team had an on-field ceremony to retire the number 93 jersey of Ndamukong Suh. The former Huskers defensive lineman was the winner of three major awards in 2009, the Outland, Lombardi and Associated Press Player of the Year awards. Suh translated that success into a five year/$60 million contact with the Detroit Lions of the NFL, from which he donated $2.6 million back to his school.
Seeing Suh join a cast of 16 other names and uniform numbers recognized on the wall of Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium caused me to wonder how Nebraska can field a team each year without multiple players having to wear the same number. It turns out that is in fact necessary, but I learned that a very interesting twist is deployed by the institution to keep more numbers in circulation.
The Huskers have implemented a unique system in which they retire both numbers and jerseys. The most important consideration is that the two aren’t the same.
While 17 jerseys have been retired by the school, only two numbers are permanently retired from use. They are number 60 for 1940’s era player Tom Novak and the 64 worn by 1960’s star Bob Brown. The other 15 numbers can still be issued to current players.
The more I think about it, the more I like this idea as a solution for another successful organization in another sport - the St. Louis Cardinals and their growing retired number challenge.
The biggest inhibitor with the Cardinals has been that the retired number horse has long been out of the barn. Any proposed change to the system would cause a major uproar if a part of the answer meant taking away any of the existing retired numbers.
Adopting the Nebraska system could provide a practical, implementable approach. For example, the Cardinals could continue to honor Gussie Busch through the previous retirement of his "uniform” number 85, but would then be free to issue the number to a prospect in spring training, as well.
There would still be some rub in deciding which of the 11 numbers associated with the 13 recognized Cardinals individuals would be permanently kept out of service, as with Novak and Brown at Nebraska. Yet it could be done and even more importantly, should be done.
Another significant benefit is the potential “uniform” retirement of other deserving players without permanently taking their numbers out of use. This offers a possible reprieve for otherwise forgotten Hall of Famers Frankie Frisch, Jim Bottomley and Ducky Medwick as well as more contemporary fan favorites like Willie McGee and Jim Edmonds.
In McGee’s case, number 51 has remained in an uncomfortable purgatory for years, neither retired (which I agree with) nor made available to issue to another. This May, a segment of fans became upset when rookie Jon Jay was issued Edmonds’ old number 15. This proposal could help eliminate these kinds of problems.
As a reminder, here is the Cardinals current retired number list, with the line drawn strategically:
||Jackie Robinson/Bruce Sutter|
In my view of how this would be done, all 13 “uniforms” would remain retired and recognized identically on the left field wall just as they are today.
In addition, six of the numbers would be designated as being forever retired. Only in the case of one of the six, Bruce Sutter/Jackie Robinson, would this not be a judgment call, since number 42 has been permanently been retired across all of Major League Baseball. The numbers could hang beyond the centerfield wall as currently.
Because of his career significance, Rogers Hornsby would have been included in my retired number group had he worn a number in his playing days. These selections (with the additions of Sutter and Red Schoendienst, who is recognized for his managerial contributions as well) made up my top five Cardinals players of all time as named in 2007.
The other five previously-retired numbers, worn by those listed above under “retired uniforms,” would be eligible to be reissued as necessary, as would others currently set aside informally. This includes, for example, the number 17 of Dizzy Dean, who at number seven on my all-time list would have been next had I drawn the line lower.
To take this to a fully-operational model moving forward, specific guidelines for both retired uniforms and the more restrictive retired numbers would need to be defined by team ownership. In terms of timing, I would be in favor of a moratorium of at least five years after retirement before any uniform or number could be retired, similar to what is used by the Hall of Fame.
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Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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