There is a 23-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers rookie of great promise named Erisbel Arruebarrena, walking around spring training wearing number 11, and this bothers the holy hell out of me. There is only one number 11 for the Dodgers, and that is Manny Mota. The 76-year-old Dodger legend, who is not a Dodgers coach for the first time in more than three decades, is also present at spring training still wearing his own number 11. He has responded to Arruebarrena being given his number with nothing but class. Maybe I am just less classy. Maybe I am biased because I had the privilege to meet Mr. Mota and found him to be as principled and proud as I dreamed the Dominican trailblazer to be. Maybe I just do not like the casual disrespect for a man who has given so much to both this organization and the city of Los Angeles. Maybe I should explain.
More than any other sport, by a country mile, numbers in the world of baseball have a near-sacred quality. I am not only talking about statistics, although there is certainly no sport that fetishizes their numerals quite like baseball. Few know or care about the exact number of yards the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmett Smith, ran for in his career, yet books have been written about Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, Henry Aaron’s journey to 755 and then, with appalled overtones, Barry Bonds’s muscled-up quest for 762.
There is certainly a case to be made that the reason why everyone from the sports media to the US Congress is so much more fanatical about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball than any other sport, is the belief that PEDs lead to inflated statistics which harm the integrity of these treasured, talismanic statistics.
The other numbers, which hold a hallowed weight in baseball, is the number on the uniform. The two most famous hoops players of their generation, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, both switched up their uniform numbers in the middle of their careers. In football, players sell their numbers to teammates. Baseball is different. It is why Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is retired in every ballpark. It is why there has been a push to retire the great Roberto Clemente’s number 21 for every team as well. It is why part of the thrill of Derek Jeter’s career has been seeing him grow into his number 2, someday to be retired amongst Yankee immortals number 3 Babe Ruth and number 4 Lou Gehrig.
That is why I find it to be so personally disturbing to see Erisbel Arruebarrena wearing that number 11. Mota, as I mentioned, was a coach for the Dodgers for thirty-four consecutive seasons, the longest in team history and the second longest in the history of the sport. He retired as the all-time leading pinch hitter in the Major Leagues. His pinch-hitting also led him to become a pop-culture legend when, in the movie Airplane, Robert Hays thought the words, “Pinch-hitting for Pedro Borbon… Manny Mota… Mota… Mota.” (Borbon and Mota never actually played together, which kind of makes it even funnier.)
The bigger issue however, is the casual disrespect to what Manny Mota represents. This is not only disrespect to someone who has given his professional life to the Dodgers organization—in a sport that is supposed to revere its history—but also disrespect to one of the first significant players to come to the Major League Baseball from the Dominican Republic. Today, it is difficult to imagine Major League Baseball without the talent infusion from the DR. Every team now has a baseball academy on the island. One-quarter of all minor league players were born there. At the start of the 2013 season, eighty-nine Dominican-born players were on major league rosters, the highest of any country outside the United States. All of this talent comes, remarkably, from a country with a population less than that of New York City.
I have written before, and surely will write again, about the problems that exist in MLB’s exploitative relationship with the young dreamers in the DR, living in poverty and striving for that Major League contract. But Manny Mota is someone who has used his stature to try and combat poverty in the DR, through his organization, the Manny Mota International Foundation. He is more than just an all-time Dodger. He is a humane bridge to a country that Major League Baseball has too often treated with contempt. It is difficult to not see the bestowing of Mota’s number 11 to Arruebarrena as symbolic of the blasé disrespect with which MLB treats the DR as a whole. But once, again, this is just me talking. When Erisbel Arruebarrena was introduced to the media, Mota came by, all class, and said, “You know what? That’s my number. Wear it with pride.” Only one person should wear that number, and he never had to be told to wear it with pride. The pride was always there. Dodgers, do the right thing and make sure that the number 11 lives only with Manny Mota-Mota-Mota.