There must be something to uniform numbers, since Baseball Reference shows a sketch of the back of the jersey for every major-league team-and-number combo on every player’s page. Jon Lester looks good wearing #31 (that is, he looks like Jon Lester) and probably won’t recognize himself in the shirt he dons this afternoon at his introductory press conference with the Cubs. It’s not the Cubby blue that will be jarring, or the strange logo (strange to Lester) on the front of the shirt, so much as the view from the back.
Can’t Jenkins and Maddux lend him their jersey? It’s not like either of them owns the shirt outright. I can almost imagine a little ruse where the Cubs tell Jenkins that Maddux has the jersey, while Maddux thinks that Jenkins is using it, and they go back and forth like this for six or seven years, with Lester wearing the coveted article of clothing all the while.
Realistically, I know that’s not possible. After looking around a bit, especially at the Yankees, who hire people at Lester’s level on a regular basis, I’ve concluded that the best way to hold onto a number that you like is to stay where you are.
Roger Clemens wore #21 proudly for fifteen seasons before being blocked by Paul O’Neill in New York. Clemens tried #12 briefly (a common practice: remember Piniella reversing the numbers on his preferred #14 shirt?) but settled on #22. Randy Johnson favored #51 but, as luck would have it, so did Bernie Williams, so Johnson became another misnumbered Yankee for two seasons. (He chose #41.) Carlos Beltran liked #15 but Furcal already had it with the Cardinals, so Beltran wore #3. Neither number was available with the Yankees. (#3 is self-explanatory, while #15 had been retired immediately after Thurman Munson’s death in a plane crash in 1979.) Beltran switched to #36. It’s hard to find the right number when you’re wearing pinstripes.
Reggie Jackson solved the dilemma by having his #9 retired by the A’s and #44 retired by the Yankees. (Maris, also a former A, had dibs on #9.) Win us a World Series, Jon, and we’ll retire whatever number you wear this afternoon. At some point, a kinder, gentler Red Sox organization will want to do the same with regard to number 31.
Note on 12/16/2014, the day after the press conference: Lester chose #34. (Let the Christmas ordering begin!) He said he always liked that number, and had phoned Kerry Wood to get his okay (not that it’s a retired number). So now everybody is happy, Lester, Wood, Jenkins, Maddux and David Ortiz, who grabbed #34 off the rack in Boston in 2003, three years ahead of Lester.