By Ernie Palladino
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It won’t be long now. Pretty soon, probably within the next couple of years, the Yankees will become an all double-digit team.
Sound silly to even remark about it? Yeah, sure. But think about it. Even for a team which retires numbers as frequently as some people change shirts, the eventual extinction of the single digit on the back of the uniform highlights just how vaunted this franchise is in sports. Between great players and great managers, the Yankees will soon run themselves into a laundry shortage. Well, not really. The numbering can go up to 99 after all. But you get the gist.
As announced Thursday, the latest single-digit to be retired is the No. 6 manager Joe Torre wore from 1996 through 2007. Four titles and 12 postseason appearances came his way over that span, so it’s no wonder the playoff fixture is having his uniform retired. He’ll get a plaque in Monument Park, too, but that’s just window dressing for the sightseers. The real treat is having the jersey taken out of circulation permanently.
Once that ceremony takes place before the White Sox game on Aug. 23, only Derek Jeter’s No. 2 will remain among the single digits. It doesn’t take a great imagination to think the Yanks will make haste to retire that one, too. In fact, considering the Farewell Tour and all, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for the Yanks to put his number aside before the last game, just to kick off the five-year Hall of Fame countdown. As if his final home game won’t be emotional enough, imagine the additional juice that would lend it. Talk about leaving them crying in the aisles.
Whenever that happens, there will be no denying that the one-digit club represents a wonderful little lineup. Torre will join fellow manager Billy Martin (No. 1), before it skips to No. 3’s Babe Ruth. Though Tino Martinez will be honored before Old Timer’s Day with a Monument Park plaque, there’s no doubt Torre would have been perfectly happy with No. 4, Lou Gehrig, at first base. And let’s face it, even the great Bernie Williams would have had trouble winning the center field job over No. 5, Joe DiMaggio.
Need more pop? How about Mickey Mantle at 7? Or famed bad-ball hitter Yogi Berra or his earlier catching predecessor Billy Dickey at No. 8. Or the man who broke Ruth’s single-season record, Roger Maris, at No. 9?
Torre wouldn’t be standing among them, of course, if not for the people with which George Steinbrenner surrounded him. Great players make great managers. History has proved that much, over and over again. Casey Stengel was actually a pretty horrible manager with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves before he got folks like Mantle, Berra, Bill Skowron, Whitey Ford, Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds, and Vic Raschi around him. Joe McCarthy did all right with the Cubs and Red Sox on the front and back ends of his career. But his fortunes exploded when he came across folks like DiMaggio, Gehrig, Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Tommy Henrich, Red Ruffing, and Lefty Gomez.
So, too, did Torre’s career take off after failed stints with the Mets, Braves, and Cardinals when he ran into the likes of Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Williams, Jorge Posada, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and some ninth-inning guy named Mariano Rivera.
That doesn’t cheapen the honor, of course. Bad managers can mess up great talent. But even the best of managers can’t win without the horses. Torre benefited from an entire stable of thoroughbreds, and he’ll be the first to say it.
When they retire Jeter’s number, the shortstop will be the third of Torre’s era to receive that honor. The skipper, Torre, is next. And the franchise will move one step closer to the end of the single-digit era.
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