Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On Uniform No. 0, the Yankees Rule Out Nothing - by Tyler Kepner

On Uniform No. 0, the Yankees Rule Out Nothing

May 13, 2017
Extra Bases

When the Yankees officially retire Derek Jeter’s No. 2 on Sunday night, they will have no more single-digit numbers remaining to issue to their players. Or will they?
Every pinstriped die-hard knows the roster of previously retired single digits: Billy Martin (1), Babe Ruth (3), Lou Gehrig (4), Joe DiMaggio (5), Joe Torre (6), Mickey Mantle (7), Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey (8), Roger Maris (9). With Jeter, it’s now a complete set — depending on your viewpoint.

No Yankee has ever worn No. 0.
This seems in keeping with the Yankees’ austere image: no player names on the jerseys, no beards or long hair, no mascots frolicking around the stands. But there is no formal policy on wearing zero, said the equipment manager Rob Cucuzza, because no one has ever asked for it.

If someone did, Cucuzza said, he would probably ask Brian Cashman, the general manager, for guidance. Cashman said that while he would have to ask ownership about it, he would have no problem giving out zero, depending on the player.
“Always liked Al Oliver,” Cashman added.

Ah, yes — Al Oliver. A .303 hitter across 18 seasons, from 1968 to 1985, Oliver now goes by @Alscoop16 on Twitter, combining his first name, his nickname — he was a first baseman in later years — and the number he wore for the Pittsburgh Pirates. When they traded him to the Texas Rangers after the 1977 season, Oliver chose No. 0.
“All of a sudden, I was going to a new league, a new city,” Oliver said in a telephone interview. “Zero is a starting point, and I wanted to start all over again. A lot of people thought it was ‘O,’ for Oliver, which makes sense, too. But rather than it being an ‘O,’ it was zero.”
The word “zero” is rarely uttered in baseball, if you think about it. A 3-0 score is generally said to be “three to nothing.” A 3-0 count is “three-oh,” “three balls and no strikes” — or sometimes, if the broadcasters want to mix it up, “three and nothing.” A 4.05 earned run average is “four point oh five” — and so on.

Danny Ozark would have liked the idea of minimizing the zero. Ozark was Oliver’s manager with the San Francisco Giants in 1984 and had strong opinions about Oliver’s number. Or integer. Or whatever.

“What really cracked me up is that Danny Ozark always said, ‘Zero is not a number!’” Oliver said. “It was funny to hear guys debating about it.”

Zero, of course, is a stopping point between minus 1 and 1, and while it represents nothing, it is, in fact, something: a starting point, as Oliver insists. To him, choosing No. 1 for his fresh start would have defied logic.

“In my mind, if you start with nothing, then you have nothing,” Oliver said. “So that’s where zero came into play. If you don’t have any money, then you have no money. But if you have one — then you’ve got something, one cent, one dollar.”

Oliver thrived with his new number. He made two All-Star teams as a Ranger and two more as a Montreal Expo, and he won the National League batting title in 1982. Once he switched to 0, he said, he decided to wear it for the rest of his career, which he finished with the Toronto Blue Jays. A teammate there, Cliff Johnson, wore 00.

“I never paid attention to the public-address announcers, but somebody said when they were reading off the lineup card, it was ‘Al Oliver, wearing nothing, and Cliff Johnson, wearing double-nothing,’” Oliver said, laughing.

According to the Baseball Reference online database, Oliver was the first of 18 players to wear zero, including four this season: Yunel Escobar of the Los Angeles Angels, Terrance Gore of the Kansas City Royals, Adam Ottavino of the Colorado Rockies and Mallex Smith of the Tampa Bay Rays.

The N.F.L. and the N.H.L. do not allow players to wear zero, and 11 teams besides the Yankees have never had a No. 0. But enough have passed through the Bronx as visitors to present a challenge for Bob Sheppard, the Yankees’ longtime public-address voice.

Sheppard, the chairman of the speech department at John Adams High School in Queens and an adjunct professor of speech at St. John’s University, would announce players in a precise manner: “Number two, Derek Jeter, number two.” But he changed his delivery when a No. 0 appeared.

Paul Doherty, a friend and agent of Sheppard’s, shared an audio file of Sheppard announcing the Rangers’ lineup before opening day in 1981 at Yankee Stadium. Sheppard introduced Oliver this way: “The designated hitter, zero, Al Oliver.” It was his dignified way of denying that zero was a number.

Intentionally or not, the Yankees have done the same — making Jeter, at least for now, the last of his kind.

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