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Being Faithful to the Past: Why Retired Numbers Should Stay Retired

After a Houston Chronicle reporter floated the idea of "reissuing" retired numbers from the Houston Astros past, Terri Schlather looks at why the idea is one that she, and the Astros, just won't get behind.

Bob Levey

Those numbers, you know the ones, they hang above El Grande at Minute Maid Park and tell the story of players who have come, left a mark on baseball and fans in Houston, and then gone. They represent players who were deemed worthy of owning a number forever - numbers that could never belong to anyone else. Can you imagine another #34? Me neither.

Many have commented over the years on the number of jersey numbers retired by the Houston Astros - nine to date - and the fact that not all of those players are Hall of Famers, the criteria some feel should be used to determine if a number is retired. The discussion about retired numbers often leads to a conversation about J.R. Richards, a player many Houston fans feel is worthy, after all, if those other guys up on the wall deserved it, so does Richards goes the argument.

I don't know the specific criteria that the Astros have used in the past to decide if a number should be retired, but I think we can all agree that given the age of the club, the number of World Series appearances and the number of Hall of Famers who have played in the Bayou City that the team has retired more than one would expect.

Yesterday, in an article on Ultimate Astros entitled "With too many retired number, Astros should reintroduce numbers," Jose de Jesus Ortiz raised the conversation of retired numbers in light of the one day contracts and retirements of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. If two men were deserving of their numbers forever belonging to them alone in Houston, they'd be two among many on my list.

But a team can't retire every number of a beloved fan favorite. Can you imagine? They'd be out of numbers and jerseys in no time flat and the equipment guys would be beyond themselves with each new call up.

Larry Dierker, in the Ultimate Astros article laid out the problem in a series of "if this, then that" scenarios. It paints a pretty clear picture of how the chain of retired numbers can get out of hand.

"If they retired my jersey (No. 49), they got to retire Roy’s," Dierker said. "If they retired Jimmy Wynn’s, they got to retire Lance’s. That’s one of the issues that we have here is that I think they jumped the gun when Jim Umbricht died and Don Wilson died.

"And all of a sudden we have some retired numbers but we weren’t producing any Hall of Famers. Usually if you have your number retired by a team, you’re in the Hall of Fame. But we kind of set a precedent that now J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, there are a whole bunch of guys that you could make an argument for based on the guys that are already retired. (Jeff) Bagwell and (Craig) Biggio are obvious."

But Ortiz took the idea of too many retired numbers one step further.

Some make valid arguments that J.R. Richard's No. 50 should be retired by the Astros, but I disagree. Moreover, I will argue that the Astros should actually reintroduce some of the retired numbers...

Yes, you read that right - he said "reintroduce" retired numbers. That one step further, is one step too far. What would that look like, reissuing retired numbers? Would Reid Ryan get on the telephone and say, "Hey, we thought you were great back then, but, well, we've changed our mind. You really weren't, so the next guy added to the roster gets your number." Um...I hope not. The idea really irritates me and if put into action makes the Astros look like the biggest crybabies in the school yard declaring, "DO OVER!" when things didn't turn out the way they planned.

There is precedent for reissuing a retired uniform number, but in very specific cases and circumstances. For example, the White Sox retired Harold Baines' number 3 and then unretired it, but only because Baines himself returned to the team.

Outside of Baines, a retired number has only been reissued 6 times. When the Montreal Expos moved to Washington D.C. to become the Nationals, the team decided to start with a clean slate, reissuing all retired numbers. And when the Marlins moved to the new ballpark and rebranded themselves the Miami Marlins, they brought number 5 - retired to honor their late team president Carl Berger - out of retirement because Logan Morrison wanted to wear it.

To say a number should never be worn again only to turn around and reissue it without any cause other than "we have retired too many" seems like an inappropriate way to handle a miscalculation.

And Reid Ryan, president, business operations for the Astros, agrees. I asked him Tuesday if he thought the club would get behind the idea of the Houston Chronicle reporter and consider reissuing retired numbers.

"We have never considered nor would likely consider un-retiring numbers. The goal is to create a way to honor former players in a manner that is respectful of their tremendous careers and their achievement in the game. A permanent HOF is the idea that I favor most."

So the guys on the wall are safe.Feel free to make your case that there are some players who deserved the recognition that never got it. Or make your case that there are guys who received the honor that shouldn't have, but either way, they're on the wall and they're staying on the wall.

In the future, we'll likely see more use of the Astros' Walk of Fame around the perimeter of the ballpark and the introduction of a Houston Astros Hall of Fame for players whose contributions to baseball in this city were undeniable. We'll certainly see names like Berkman and Oswalt there. As to whether those names will make the wall of retired numbers is likely up to the BBWAA now more than ever, as I suspect the honor of a retired number will fittingly come down to an MLB Hall of Fame Vote moving forward.

In the meantime, I will rest easy knowing that the team I cheer for will do the right thing and keep their promises, show respect for the guys who were honored in the past, and keep the retired numbers retired.