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April 17, 2011
The #42 Question
On Friday, Major League Baseball celebrated the eighth annual Jackie Robinson Day, honoring the sixty-fourth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut in the major leagues. As has been the custom since 2009, every uniformed player, coach, and manager involved in games Friday wore Jackie's #42 as their jersey number for the day. With all 30 teams active on Friday, this means 750 players and roughly 100 more coaches all took the field with "42" on their backs.
It's a gesture that seems to have missed its mark with some fans. Reading opinions from any number of outlets on Friday - whether they be newspaper columnists, sports websites, Twitter, respected blogs, bulletin boards & forums, and more - the sentiment is strong, if not overwhelming: seeing entire teams wearing number 42 is overkill and it dilutes the honor. After all, if someone is forced to do something, the "honor" in it is diminished.
Players did not wear "42" for the first few years on Jackie Robinson Day. In 2007, Ken Griffey, Jr., asked Commissioner Bud Selig for special permission to wear "42" as a personal salute to Robinson. Selig liked the idea so much that he invited players on all teams to wear the jersey number if they so chose. It was a popular idea in clubhouses, with 150 players and coaches wearing the number. The next year, even more players chose to honor Robinson in the same way, with a number of teams electing to wear "42" as a whole. Selig then took the next logical step and made the gesture a league-wide part of the Jackie Robinson Day festivities.
Not even the players have been completely behind the league-wide rollout. Griffey, Torii Hunter, CC Sabathia, and others were vocal about it from the start, saying that having so many players wearing the number "waters it down." So why does Major League Baseball continue with this tradition if neither the fans nor the players like it?
The problem is that everyone is looking at the gesture from the wrong point of view. Players and fans both seem to take the individual's point of view that's something along these lines:
"This tradition started because Ken Griffey wanted to do something special for Jackie Robinson. It was a genuine, profound gesture from Griffey. When others who felt the same way as Griffey heard about it, they wanted to do it too. It was meaningful to these players. Now that the teams and then the league are *mandating* players where the number, it is no longer meaningful, it is no longer personal. It's no different than the little MLB logo on the back of their caps, or the stupid red caps on the Fourth of July. The emotion is gone and, thus, the honor."
From that point of view, it's hard to disagree. But it's not the point of view that Bud Selig was seeing things from when he made the rule. The Commissioner's point of view is much closer to that of a team honoring a recently passed legend. There is no consternation in Cleveland over the team forcing every player to wear a Bob Feller patch this year or in Los Angeles with the Duke Snider patch (or Detroit and Cincinnati with Sparky Anderson, or Pittsburgh with Chuck Tanner, or Seattle with Dave Niehaus). In both cases, the organization is foregoing any individuals acts and choosing to show their honor for the particular individual on an organization-wide level.
There are a few reasons why Jackie Robinson Day feels different. The first is simple - it's nature as a single-day, league-wide event. All of that focus and attention from all thirty teams makes the issue a standard topic of discussion and impossible not to form an opinion on. The fact that a jersey number is a much more overt form of expression than a jersey patch doesn't help either. That doesn't mean the act is any different, though.
But the biggest reason seems to be everyone's dislike of Bud Selig. The Commissioner is not the most popular of figures in baseball and his motives are often questioned. When he makes a controversial and potentially political decision like the Jackie Robinson Day uniforms, it's easy to be cynical and find fault with the act.
I don't know the Commissioner any more than the next guy, so I can't speak for his true intentions. Maybe they are as bad as we think.That doesn't make the actual act on the field a terrible thing. Major League Baseball created Jackie Robinson Day to honor the legacy of a great man and to do their best to foster remembrance and discussion about Robinson. A large, visible act like every major leaguer wearing "42" for a single day is a great way to do that. Yes, it makes scorekeeping difficult and takes away from any personal acts specific players might want to do, but those are minor issues next to fostering an awareness for Robinson to a new generation. (Now, if you're in the camp that believes that Major League Baseball is taking its glorification of Robinson a little too far, that's a different discussion.)
The fuss over the Jackie Robinson Day festivities keeps growing every year. I do understand where it comes from, but I just can't agree. A single day where all 750 major leaguers unite to remind the millions of baseball fans, from age 95 to five, of the importance of Jackie Robinson isn't a bad idea. It could probably be turned down a notch or two, but that has little to do with the Florida Marlins all wearing #42. Let's, instead, enjoy the day and do our best to remind the new generation of everything Jackie and his fellow groundbreakers (Larry Doby, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and everyone else) did for the game and the country. It's much more productive than making jokes about #42 pitching to #42.