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What's in a Number

As you've probably heard by now, new Phillies closer Tom Gordon passed his physical this weekend and was formally introduced by the team. In a move that probably won't hurt his standing among area fans, Gordon asked for and was given uniform number 45, which the late Tug McGraw wore in his long career as a Phils reliever.

Tom Gordon must have been just 9 or 10 at the time, but he remembers the moment vividly.

He and his father were watching the Atlanta Braves play the Phillies. It must have been late in the game and the Phillies must have been winning because Gordon's father turned to him and said, "Son, that's Tug McGraw pitching." To which Gordon responded, "Dad, his name is Tug?"

But Gordon, whose nickname is "Flash" and whom the Phillies introduced as their new closer yesterday at Citizens Bank Park, has an appreciation for McGraw. Gordon will wear No. 45 for the Phillies, the same number McGraw wore when he helped them win their only World Series championship in 1980.

"Jan. 5, 2004, baseball lost a pioneer in Tug McGraw, and this is truly an honor for me to be able to wear his number on the field," Gordon said.

Nice gesture. It got me thinking about the odd role uni numbers occupy in baseball, particularly how they get so ingrained in our heads but, aside from when they're retired, so little acknowledgement in a sport where numbers otherwise dominate. You can go to any of the MLB team sites and find your favorite team's all-time alphabetical roster, but they don't have the numbers up there.

So you're stuck with memory. Any Phils phan worth the name can tell you who wore #1, #20 or #32. #14 will always be Pete Rose for those among us of a certain age; but I also remember Rex Hudler, when the team signed him during its dismal late-'90s period, making a big deal of the fact that he wanted to wear it, even going so far as asking Rose for permission.

(Ironic, that. At least by reputation, Hudler was the anti-Rose in the clubhouse: great teammate, terrific guy. His on-field performance, as least as a Phillie, also wasn't exactly reminiscent of the Hit King. But I digress...)

The guys who suck tend to run together, sometimes with baffling results. Endy Chavez wore #47 last season; I'm pretty sure that in previous years, Amaury Telemaco had it. In neither case did sighting those two digits ever do much for my hopes of good things happening on the field.

And some numbers--well, you (I) worry they're jinxed. Chase Utley wears #26; let's hope he does better with it than Jeff Stone or Ron Jones, two phormer Phils whose big-league careers started with great promise and ended in great disappointment. I think I've blocked out Steve Jeltz's number, which is for the best; and I trust no other Phil will don #99 again in my lifetime.

Which Phils of today will permanently attach themselves to their uni numbers? Personally, I think it would be nice if Ryan Howard at least could claim #6 back in my mind from Doug Glanville...