The act of retiring numbers is a strange way of honoring a person. In other realms we build statues and paint portraits, but we don’t tend to create permanently empty offices or vacate titles. Practicality drives us forward. And yet in baseball it’s reserved for the inner circle of Hall of Famers, plus Willie Horton: a manual separation between the past and the future, a respectful stasis. Felix Hernandez’s no. 34 was all but assured, at the beginning of the year, to join Ryan, Fingers, and Puckett. A tumultuous season has thrown this, along with his trajectory toward the Hall of Fame, into doubt.
But the number of a player is a strange little anachronism in and of itself. My favorite number is 24 primarily because it was worn by my favorite baseball player, Rickey Henderson. (The number is also easily divisible, making it a relief to see on second-grade division problems.) But in the era of gigantic video screens and endless national media exposure, the uniform number’s original purpose, differentiating players from the bleachers, isn’t really necessary. And as players relocate with greater frequency, they’re often forced to compromise. Felix had to wait a season for his own number, bearing no. 59 his rookie season while no. 34 was kept out of circulation in honor of his idol, Freddy Garcia.
Yet numbers often become a nearly permanent characteristic of players, a form of mathematical synecdoche, apparent in the RE2PECT jokes of late 2014. Mets fans are already pre-ordering shirseys with fifteens on them even though Tim Tebow hasn’t received a jersey or, technically, a uniform number. For whatever reason, traits like numbers and high-school nicknames just have a tendency to stick to people.
But the numbering of players (and the naming, by the same logic) creates an unintended philosophical side effect, concerning the identity of objects and people. This paradox is called, among other titles, the Ship of Theseus.
The story goes like this: You’ve got a guy, Theseus, who owns a ship. I think he uses it to go kill a minotaur or snip three hairs off a siren or something, but that’s not important. What’s important for us is his ship, which is preserved in the Athenian harbor as a monument after our hero heads on down to Hades. Essentially, instead of getting his number retired, his whole boat gets retired. Things wear out over time, of course, so every so often someone goes in and replaces a plank or a part here or there. If they keep doing this, eventually every single piece of the original will have been replaced. This leads to the question: Is it the same ship?
Hobbes complicates the question further by adding a hypothetical. Let’s say that our anonymous Greek subcontractor replacing all these planks is taking them around the corner and using them to build a new boat. Eventually, he replaces every single piece of the old ship and uses them to create a new ship. So now we have two ships, both with a claim to be the “real” ship: one the original design, one with the original parts. Either objects can be subtly altered over time without losing their identity (a stitch in a shirt, a ligament put back in a different place) or an object is defined by where its parts are. So which ship is truly Theseus’?
There are a few different methods for tackling this paradox, and all of them require some philosophical compromise.
· You can claim that an object is no longer itself once it has changed a certain amount; say, that once 50 percent of its original parts have been replaced, its identity is destroyed. The trouble with this is another ancient paradox: the Sorites heap. This one states that change is so gradual that no single increment of it can be seen as altering an identity. If you weigh 300 pounds and lose a quarter of a pound each day in linear fashion, at some point you’ll no longer be obese, but what quarter of a pound will suddenly transform you from fat to thin? Picking any moment for Theseus’ ship to be de-Theseused seems awfully arbitrary.
· You can claim that no identity ever survives any change. Theseus’s ship loses its identity the moment the first part gets removed. In this case the only paradox is that no one actually wants to do this; we don’t go renaming or reassessing everything the moment it sees the slightest alteration. Identity becomes so incalculable as to become meaningless.
· You can deny that identity is transitive: that both the remodeled ship and the salvaged ships are Theseus’ Ship, but are not the same as each other. You can do this, but I wouldn’t.
· Finally, you can bow to Wittgenstein, and defeat all this nonsense about change and identity by deciding that the property “Theseus’ Ship,” as a name, can be applied to whatever we want it to. That’s how names work. As convenient as social relativism can be, it’ll create its own issues discussed later.
So you have lots of choices for dealing with this fictional ship, none of which is particularly appealing. It could be very tempting to close this tab right now, and banish this whole problem you didn’t even know you had. Please resist: Unfortunately, while the ship is fake, the problem is very real. Especially for Felix Hernandez.
The optimum solution to the Ship of Theseus paradox, ultimately, is not to worry about it. You’ve got a ship, stop stressing about what to call it. Use it to do all your ship stuff. But often, and particularly in baseball, we can’t settle for that; identity is a necessary tool for projection. (This is where Wittgenstein and the social relativists fail us: They can allow us to agree that a snake is a kitten, but they cannot force the snake to purr.) In order to know how an object or person will behave in the future, we have to know what it is now. And so it is with Felix, and every other baseball player, but especially Felix.
Mariners fans and analysts have spent the better part of an embattled season trying to figure out exactly what Felix Hernandez currently is. Is he the man who gave up five earned runs in all of April? The one who gave up six in back-to-back starts two weeks ago? The man who went six scoreless but also only struck out two, while inducing 14 flyballs? Is he a generally happy person who, Whatever he is, bears the same name, the same face (with occasional goatee bleaching) and same uniform number as the Cy Young winner, the future Hall of Famer we all felt so sure of recently.
But time, and its insipid cousin, age, are like a terrible boat repair: They swap out parts and replace them with inferior versions. These “permanent” traits, faces and names and numbers, become a lie, an implicit connection to better times. This isn’t always a terrible thing for the player—after all, a name got Tim Lincecum a job this summer—but it presents an issue for the people invested in that player’s future. Hernandez can never escape his own name, unless he’s revealed to be Fausto Carmona. Whether justifiably or not, he’s indebted to his employer, to his expectant fans in the yellow T-shirts and the hundred-dollar jerseys, and to the idiots who name their children after him. And he owes it to his own no. 34, a legacy both in progress and yet also completely mapped out.
Is there any way out of this, for us? We can either decide that Felix is no longer Felix, or lose the concept of Felix Hernandez entirely. Or, we can accept the tiring advice of Heraclitus, who told us (in so many words) that we never watch the same Felix Hernandez start twice. Change is both inescapable and imperceptible. Perhaps a change of uniform number would create some artificial division, an opportunity to force us into reevaluation. Perhaps players should change numbers more often than they do. Perhaps the best solution of all is to retire all numbers, toss away the crutches.
But barring that unrealistic outcome, the best we can do is appreciate that there have been, at time of publication, 355 different Felix Hernandezes at the major-league level, and just as many of each of us witnessing them, and writing about them. We may not get a chance to meet them all, and some may be as unrecognizable as they are transient. But it would at least keep us from comparing each athlete, actor and author to their younger, better selves. And even if this latest version, and his descendants, fail to live up to their ancestors and fail to lock the no. 34 from future use, there is nothing to take away.
Or you approach life like Rickey. When he made his last return to the majors with the Dodgers in 2003, after a summer toiling in Newark, he took uniform no. 25. He’d never worn it before. His old 24 was available. Nobody really knows why he changed it. He just did. After all, he was still Rickey.
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