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The Globe and Mail

Retirement of Alomar's No. 12 remains a novelty for Jays

It used to be an exclusive club, the one Roberto Alomar will join on Sunday when he has his No. 12 jersey retired by the Toronto Blue Jays.

Although the Hall of Fame second baseman will become the first member in the 35-year history of the franchise to have his number taken out of circulation, the practice throughout sports is now so common that the novelty is not so novel any more.

Mark Stang, a U.S. author whose book, Baseball By The Numbers, is considered the definitive guide to Major League Baseball player uniform numbers, believes the practice has grown stale.

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"This is the first number the Blue Jays are going to retire?" Stang said over the telephone this week from his home in Tampa. "Hell, even Tampa Bay has retired a number and they've only been around since 1998."

Last Sunday, Alomar became the first player wearing a Blue Jays cap to enter baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Now it is the Blue Jays' turn to pay homage to one of the game's greatest second basemen and they've decided the jersey retirement is the best route to go.

When Alomar's jersey is hoisted to the rafters, he will join a not so exclusive club of roughly 160 major-league players who have also had their numbers put into mothballs.

"It's special," Alomar said, tearing up, when asked recently what it meant knowing his number would never be worn again by another Blue Jay. "I am really honoured and proud."

Of baseball's 30 teams, the Seattle Mariners and the Colorado Rockies will be left as the only ones who haven't yet retired a number.

The New York Yankees, naturally, lead the way with 16 number retirements, including the one that got it all started in baseball when Lou Gehrig's No. 4 was withdrawn from use in 1939.

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But Gehrig wasn't the first number to be retired in professional sports.

That distinction is held by Ace Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose No. 6 was retired by the National Hockey League club in 1934 during a benefit game for Bailey after he suffered a career-ending fractured skull.

The stampede for teams to retire numbers has led to some rather interesting decisions.

Several teams have retired numbers in honour of team presidents or owners, who presumably never had to wear a number - unless they'd gone to jail.

Perhaps the strangest number retirement belongs to the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks, who in 1984 retired the No. 12 to represent the fans - often referred to as the 12th man.

The Florida Marlins have retired No. 5 in honour of Carl Barger, the National League team's first president, who passed away before the Marlins had played their first game in franchise history in 1993.

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The number was chosen because Barger's favourite player growing up was Joe DiMaggio, whose No. 5 was first retired by the Yankees in 1952.

Although Wade Boggs made his name in Boston, where he played the first 11 years of his career, the Red Sox have never seen fit to retire his number. That was left up to Tampa, where Boggs played the final two years of his career and happened to be the team for which he stroked his 3,000th career hit in 1999.

For that the Rays retired Boggs's jersey, No. 12, the only player the franchise has so honoured.

One of Stang's favourite stories involving number retirement involves Joe Morgan, the former Cincinnati Reds great who played one summer for the Durham Bulls in 1963 before he arrived in the big leagues.

Thirty years later, in 1993, after Morgan had been inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Bulls decided they wanted to honour one of their best known players by retiring his number. Morgan was contacted and, of course, was all for it and even attended the ceremony and watched as No. 18 was immortalized.

Trouble was, Morgan wore No. 8 during his three months in Durham.

"Talk about having ham and egg on your face," Stang said.

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