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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Who will be next to have his number retired at Fenway?

The numbers are lined up along the right-field grandstand roof at Fenway Park as silent bas-relief beacons to nearly 80 years of outstanding performances by Red Sox players. 

They were once arranged in order of when they were officially retired, which led Boston Globe columnist/fatalist Dan Shaughnessy to note that the original four digits formed a date -- 9-4-1-8 -- on which Fenway was being prepped for a Red Sox-Cubs World Series. For 86 long years, 1918 would mark the last year that the ballpark was home to a world champion. 

Perhaps to help break this "curse" the numbers were later rearranged from smallest to largest, so that they now read across as follows: 1 (for Bobby Doerr); 4 (Joe Cronin); 6 (Johnny Pesky); 8 (Carl Yastrzemski); 9 (Ted Williams); 14 (Jim Rice); 27 (Carlton Fisk); and 42 (Robinson). 

The first seven men wore Red Sox uniforms with distinction; the eighth, Robinson, was denied the chance to do so after a sham 1945 tryout at Fenway based on the color of his skin. Robinson's number has now been retired by every major league team, but its presence here is particularly significant because of what could have been. 

Boston management has set down ground rules for this exclusive club -- all such honorees (besides Robinson, of course) must have played at least 10 years for the franchise, retired a Red Sox, and later made the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 

These rules, however, have been altered twice.

In 2000, after his selection to the Hall of Fame, the Red Sox gave Carlton Fisk a consulting job with the team so he could "retire" with Boston and have his number retired that summer—even though he had spent the last half of his playing career with the White Sox,

Pesky never made the Hall of Fame; by raising up his "6" a day after his 89th birthday in 2008, the Sox honored his six decades with the team as a player, coach, manager, broadcaster and instructor. Although he actually fit none of the original three criteria for number retirement, it's hard to imagine anybody being more dedicated to the franchise.

Assuming the rules can be broken again, whose numbers are the best candidates to join these legends in the years to come?

David Ortiz (#34): The heart of the franchise since 2003 and a force behind two World Series champions, Ortiz has been officially dubbed "the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history."

His charisma and flair for the dramatic—including three walk-off hits in a week during the epic curse-busting playoff run of 2004—assures his place in team history.

If the free agent signs on for two or three more years with Boston, "Big Papi" will likely reach his milestone 400th or even 450th home run with the Sox. That plus his magnetic personality make him the most likely number retiree on the current club, although ending his career elsewhere could harm his chances.

Jason Varitek (#33): The captain's reputation as a gritty, dedicated team player took a hit this September when the Red Sox blew their huge wild-card lead. Fans wondered aloud about "Tek's" leadership skills as news broke about the chicken-wing eating shenanigans of Boston pitchers.

Still, the catcher's total body of work over 15 seasons with the Sox is impressive: a team-record 1,488 contests behind the plate, a Gold Glove,193 home runs and two World Series rings. Pitchers swear by his game-calling, and he has caught an MLB-record four no-hitters to support their claims.

Tek is now strictly a backup with a 40th birthday looming in April, but if he can help Boston rebound next season and end his career on a high note—and in a Red Sox uniform—it may be enough to get his "33" up on the wall.

Tim Wakefield (#49): Starter. Closer. Long man. Short man. Innings-killer. Friend to sick kids in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Jimmy Fund Clinic. Tim Wakefield has done it all for the Red Sox since being claimed off the scrap heap by Dan Duquette in 1995, and the knuckleballer is now within reach of becoming Boston's all-time winningest pitcher—just six wins behind co-leaders Cy Young and Roger Clemens (192 apiece).

Therein, however, lies the quandary.

Wakefield took nine long starts to reach his 200th career victory last summer—his first 14 wins were with Pittsburgh—and many fans felt manager Terry Francona should have replaced the 46-year-old in the rotation with long-reliever Alfredo Aceves and his sparkling 2.61 ERA as the wild-card lead slipped away. Bringing back Wakefield (7-8, 5.12 in '11) for one more year in 2012 doesn't guarantee he'll get the wins record, and many fans feel he should hang 'em up and let a younger arm take his place.

But if he does come back, and he does break the mark, it will be a great story  and greatly increase the chance his "49" will one day be retired.

Pedro Martinez (#45): Wakefield may have more victories, and Clemens may have more Cy Young Awards, but there is no debating the best Red Sox pitcher of the last 25 years. In fact, when taking into account the era in which he played, Pedro Martinez may be the most dominating hurler in team history.

Martinez went 117-37 with a 2.51 ERA for the Red Sox from 1998-2004, a period when steroid-pumped sluggers were keeping most AL starting pitchers well above the 4.00 mark. In the 2000 season, when he finished with a 1.74 ERA, the next-nearest hurler to him was Clemens (then of the Yankees) at 3.70. It was like the days Babe Ruth used to out-homer entire teams; nobody else was even close to Martinez.

Pedro left Boston after the magic 2004 season for the security of a longer contract with the Mets, but unlike with Clemens all was forgiven. Martinez received huge ovations in his returns to Fenway with New York and to throw out the first pitch of the 2010 season, and a decision to retire his "45" would likely receive similar support from fans.

Luis Tiant (#23): Pedro had fans in a frenzy as he struck out batters at a record clip during his prime, but for sheer enjoyment there was no Red Sox pitcher who was more fun to watch then Luis Tiant. Inside this portly hurler with the wild, twisty-turny motion was the heart of a lion, and Fenway crowds chanted "Looie-Looie" each time he took the hill.

Tiant won 20 games three times for the Red Sox in the mid-70s, plus two more wins in the epic World Series of 1975. His career regular-season stats, including a 229-172 record and 49 shutouts with six teams, match up favorably with several Hall of Famers, but this Cuban hero has fallen short in his bid to make it to Cooperstown.

Luis is now up for consideration by the HOF's Veterans' Committee, and if they vote him in on Dec. 5, a retirement of his "23" at Fenway next summer would be a classy gesture by management—and a great public relations move as well.

Dustin Pedroia (#15): Sure, it's a bit too early to make a spot on the wall for Dustin Pedroia's "`15." "But if early results are any indication, the diminutive fireplug with the big bat and smooth glove will one day be honored in a fashion similar to another great Boston second baseman, Bobby Doerr.

In just five full ML seasons, Pedroia has been named a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, a three-time All-Star and a two-time Gold Glove winner. He's led the AL in runs scored, hits and doubles, become a 20-homer, 20-steal performer and emerged as a leader on the Boston team.

If he keeps it up for another 10 years, he'll be booking his tickets for Cooperstown—and a place among the all-time greatest Red Sox.

Nomar Garciaparra (#5): There was a time, as recent as 2003, when the thought of the Red Sox one day retiring Garciaparra's number was a foregone conclusion.

Just a year later, it was suddenly anything but a sure thing.

For his first seven seasons, from 1996-03, the shortstop had compiled a .323 average and a .555 slugging mark while emerging as one of the most popular players in team history. "Nomah" had won two batting titles and was a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate.Then it all came crashing down.

After the 2003 season, believing that injuries were slowly robbing their star of his range and bat speed, the Red Sox hotly pursued Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod signed with the Yankees instead, but the slight angered Garciaparra and impacted his performance on the field and in the clubhouse.

By August of 2004 the disgruntled icon was traded, and missed out on the magic World Series run that fall. He still got a ring, but he may have lost his chance at a number retirement.

Dwight Evans (#24): This one is a real long shot, but it shouldn't be. Evans played the last season of his career with the Orioles, but for 19 years and 2,505 games before that he was a Red Sox—and put up some of the most impressive numbers in team history.

On defense, "Dewey" had great range and a rifle arm, winning eight Gold Gloves for Boston despite having to play a right field in Fenway Park that was bigger and more sun-challenged than most. Offensively, he went from being a streaky hitter with 20-homer power in the 1970s to one of the best all-around batters in the game—leading all AL players in homers (256) and extra-base hits during the '80s.

His Boston totals of 379 homers, 474 doubles and 1,384 RBI all rank in the Top Five in team history, and nobody in franchise annals has matched his Gold Glove total. It's hard to believe that those 101 games with Baltimore might be the only thing keeping Evans from having his "24" retired at Fenway, but now that Manny Ramirez is no longer wearing it either, the right-field grandstand would be a great place for it to wind up.

Tony Conigliaro (#25): No Boston-area kid ever had a more glorious career ahead of him with the Red Sox than a young "Tony C." And nobody ever had that glory taken away so fast—or in such horrible a fashion.

Conigliaro was movie-star handsome, a rock singer in his spare time, and by mid-1967 had reached 100 home runs at a younger age (22) than any other American League player. Then the local legend was nearly killed by a pitch, and although he came back several times in heroic fashion, eye problems connected to the injury kept him from ever fulfilling those early expectations.

Tony C couldn't even get lucky in retirement. A massive heart attack at age 37 caused irreversible brain damage, and left him largely incapacitated for the last eight years of his short life. Nobody ever showed more guts while wearing a Red Sox uniform, however, and for this reason many fans believe his "25" should be retired as much for what could have been as for what he did accomplish.

Who do you think should be honored alongside Yaz, The Kid, Jim Ed, and the rest? After all, the Yankees have retired 16 numbers including Robinson's—surely the Red Sox can find a ninth man to recognize in this fashion.

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