About a month ago, Diamondbacks blog AZ Snakepit raised the question: Should the D-Backs retire Luis Gonzalez's number? The arguments both for and against were well-made and self-evident. For: He holds almost every Diamondbacks record, he was beloved in the community, he signed a bunch of autographs, he had a somewhat well-remembered hit in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Against: He's not in the Hall of Fame, he only played for the team for eight years, he pretty obviously did steroids. (Something else that should count against him: His post-playing career revolves around his company IsTalking.com, which "develops new social networking Web sites exclusively for college students." Ugh.)
My view on this is beside the point: As with all of these previews, I can't pretend to know any of these teams better than their closest, most devoted fans. (Though as a "Retire 51" advocate, I'll confess to being no fan of the Must Be A Hall Of Famer corollary.) What I love about the debate is that what it's really about is family.
During the baseball season, I spend more time with my team's players than I do with just about any of my friends or family. (This says a bit about me, I'm aware.) I learn everyone's individual quirks, the way that Brendan Ryan smells his armpit at the plate, the way Colby Rasmus' jersey hangs off him the way Andy Van Slyke's used to, the way Jason Motte flares his nostrils, an overgrown kid pretending he's Goose Gossage. They are regular visitors in my life, at least for the summer. Then maybe they go away, and I forget about them, old friends lost to time and expedience. If they come back with another team, I remember this one-way friendship wistfully and warmly, the way I feel like waving every time I see Dan Haren pitch.
Then there are the ones who stay. The ones who become a constant. The ones who grow older with me, aging as I do, their virtues and flaws growing more apparent, more endearing, each year. These people are family. They're family for all of us.
Not every team has them, but every team tries. Derek Jeter in New York. Albert Pujols in St. Louis. Lance Berkman in Houston. Joe Mauer in Minnesota. San Diego and Tampa Bay, in a perfect world, would keep Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford as these people, but this world is far from perfect. I'm sure the most popular jersey at Camden Yards is still Cal Ripken, at Petco Tony Gwynn, at Kauffman Stadium George Brett. These guys are all superstars, which has led to their longevity, but that's not a requirement. I still see dozens of Mark Grace jerseys at Wrigley, as it should be. I bet you see a lot of Gonzalez jerseys at the old BOB. We honor in the only way we can.
That we retire jerseys at all has a certain military funeral aspect to it, a way to honor those who came before us, who allowed us to have what we have now. People who say they dislike free agency or constant player movement always cite the Jerry Seinfeld line about fans rooting for laundry. (This line is true on its surface, I suppose, but entirely beside the point: What fans are really rooting for when they root for their team are themselves, and their own happiness.) The ultimate civic honor in sports is, essentially, the retiring of one's laundry. It's achingly sweet. Sometimes I think they should retire everybody's jersey.