I was asked in the comments section on Friday whether I was surprised that the St. Louis Cardinals re-issued Mark McGwire’s number 25. The recipient is recently-promoted bench coach David Bell, who moved off number 23. (That was news first disclosed here at The Cardinal Nation Blog back on February 9th, by the way.)
My reply became so long, I turned it into this post instead of a comment.
The short answer is “No, I was not surprised.”
I suspect this occurred due to a number of factors working in concert.
Of course, the first gate to pass was for the Cardinals to allow it by removing number 25’s unofficially-retired status, where it had been from 2002-09 and again during the last two seasons. Why did they do that, though?
First of all, it is very clear that McGwire is not going to be elected to Cooperstown any time soon. Holding aside his number for those related celebrations is clearly unnecessary.
That is a bad reason, anyway, in my opinion. As fans may remember, the most recent Cardinals inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame immediately had their numbers retired as well – Bruce Sutter, Whitey Herzog, Tony La Russa, to name three. I am not sure all of those number-retirement decisions will fully stand the test of time.
I remain against number-retiring having become “automatic.” I think at least five more years should pass until a number is forever taken out of service. I am sure glad the recent practice was not followed all the way back to when the Hall opened or there would be a lot of current Cardinals wearing three-digit numbers on their uniforms and the entire Busch Stadium outfield wall would be covered with names, images and numbers.
Better instead to reserve the use of retired numbers for the very best of the best – the most exclusive of clubs. My view is very straightforward. If there is the slightest hint of a question about the selection, we then have our answer. The number should not be retired.
Back to the Hall of Fame celebration, which seems a long way away for McGwire. In fact, not that a retired number would be attached, because it is not and should not, but it looks like it will be a number of years until Big Mac even is selected for his own team’s Hall of Fame.
The next reason for releasing Cardinals number 25 is another obvious one – McGwire is no longer wearing it himself. As opposed to Willie McGee, whose number 51 remains unofficially retired and donned by him alone as a special instructor, McGwire is a Los Angeles Dodger. His “25” is now blue.
As an aside, I suspect that now that McGee has been inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame, if he later leaves the organization to coach for another club, his number 51 might someday be eased back into service. I do not expect either to happen any time in the foreseeable future, however.
Finally, Bell reportedly requested the number. With the bench coach coming from a three-generation Major League Baseball family, 25 has been long associated with the Bell clan, including David himself.
Interestingly, Bell had to wait two decades to get his old Cardinals 25 back. As a rookie in 1995, Bell was assigned the number, but was soon returned to Triple-A. By the time Bell was called up again to St. Louis in 1996, things were different.
New manager Tony La Russa had named George Hendrick as his hitting coach, with “Silent George” re-claiming the 25 he had worn as a Cardinals outfielder. Bell settled for number 27. Hendrick was then trumped himself in 1997, ceding 25 to McGwire when the slugger arrived from Oakland in trade.
During his second stint with the Cardinals, McGwire rarely donned his actual uniform jersey, apparently preferring to wear more generic garb, often a team windbreaker, while coaching.
As hard as it would have been for anyone to believe in 1998, it has now been affirmed that Cardinals number 25 will not be McGwire’s forever. And I am ok with that.
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