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.)