As difficult as it might be to believe now, the Bears have a tradition of innovation and invention. The “T” formation, the middle linebacker and tight end positions, even the forward pass — the Bears were either trailblazers or early adopters of them all.
They also might be ahead of the curve when it comes to the practice of retiring jersey numbers. After setting aside Mike Ditka’s No. 89 for all time in 2013, the Bears decided it would be the last number to be permanently retired.
Good for them.
They should take the next logical step, which would be to take some of the long-retired numbers out of mothballs.
Now that the Yankees have retired Derek Jeter’s No. 2, they are officially out of single-digit options for current and future players. They have also retired the numbers 10, 15, 16, 20, 23, 32, 37, 42, 44, 46, 49 and 51.
That means 21 of the numbers between 1 and 99 are no longer available. If the Yankees keep retiring numbers at this rate, how long will it be until a player has to wear a three-digit number on his back? Laugh if you want, but current Yankees hotshot Aaron Judge wears No. 99.
Maybe when the numbers run out, teams can get creative. How about symbols? Or maybe emojis?
It’s time to put this pointless and silly tradition out of its misery.
Have a ceremony. Show some highlights. Hang a banner if you must.
But keep the number.
The number belongs to the team, not the player. Allowing one player to wear it does not diminish the achievements of another.
When the Blackhawks acquired Dale Tallon from the Canucks in 1973, he briefly wore Bobby Hull’s No. 9 in the preseason. But the wounds from Hull’s departure from the Hawks were too fresh, and his imprint on the franchise too large, so Tallon shed the number and opted instead for No. 19.
That number was “sacred,” Tallon said, though if he were being honest, he would have admitted he didn’t need the extra pressure of being compared to one of the greatest players to lace up a pair of skates, especially one who was still a superstar, albeit in another league.
“No. 9 in Chicago is Bobby Hull,” the great Bob Verdi wrote at the time, “always has been, always will be.”
Well, not really. Others wore it before Hull, including Bronco Horvath, Tod Sloan and two Conachers, Roy and Pete. In fact, when Hull broke in with the Hawks, he wore No. 16, later worn by his teammate Chico Maki and many others, most recently Marcus Kruger.
Given a proper “mourning” period, a number should be put back into circulation.
When Cubs second baseman Ken Hubbs, the 1962 National League rookie of the year, was killed in a plane crash in 1964, his No. 16 was respectfully put on the shelf. The number was never officially retired, though, and eventually it turned up on the backs of various journeymen, starting with infielder Roger Metzger in 1970. Steve Ontiveros, Steve Lake, Anthony Young and Aramis Ramirez — all of them wore No. 16 with varying degrees of distinction.
It’s just a number.
The Devils used to have a strict uniform numbering policy. With 20-odd players active at any one time, they saw no reason to have anyone wear a number higher than 30. There were occasional exceptions — Doug Gilmour got to keep his No. 93, for example, when they acquired him from the Maple Leafs — but generally they held firm. The Devils also forbade facial hair for a long time (sound familiar, Yankees fans?), other than the traditional playoff beards.
The idea was, I believe, to demonstrate that the team is bigger than whoever happens to be wearing the uniform at any given time. What’s on the front of the jersey — or sweater, if you will — matters more than the number or name on the back.
After winning three Stanley Cups (1995, 2000, 2003), the Devils softened their stance on numbers and even retired a handful. Since then, they have slipped into the lower tier of NHL teams and look as if they’ll be there for a while. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.
Players come and go. Teams endure.
Numbers are not sacred. Memories are, and they should be enough.
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