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November 2, 2012

Cloninger: The numbers game



"So raise the banners,
Cross the beams."
-------------------------- REAL MCKENZIES

So Chad Holbrook has weighed in on underlying topic around South Carolina baseball, one that's not a huge issue, but since he spoke about it, it's at least out there.

Should the Gamecocks start retiring numbers?

It's always nice in this business to walk into an arena and see the banners hanging or numbers posted on the walls, and realize, "Oh, right, so-and-so went here." I always thought that there was no greater honor for an athlete than to have his jersey number retired after his playing career was over.

For the Gamecocks, the most consistently successful program at USC, I always thought it strange that they didn't have any numbers retired. There were so many deserving players that it always felt strange to walk into Sarge Frye Field or Carolina Stadium and not see any numbers hanging on the walls.

USC has a policy on retiring numbers, one that was made public a few years ago. Any deserving candidate must be nominated with a notice being sent to the coach and/or athletic director. A nominee must have graduated or be in good academic standing with a "reasonable opportunity" to graduate. There must be at least five years between the nominee's final season and the nomination.

Beside those, a nominee must be one or more of the following:

* A school record-holder

* A consensus All-American

* A consensus national player of the year

* An Olympic medalist while a student at USC

* All-SEC first or second-team for three years

If a nominee fits all that, a selection committee will be comprised of the athletic director or an A.D. designee, a male and female coach, a former recipient of a retired number (if available), a member of the Letterman's Association and a member of the USC Board of Trustees' Intercollegiate Athletics Committee.

USC further states that only a jersey will be retired, and not a number. Previously retired numbers (in football, men's basketball and women's basketball, there are 12) will stay retired unless the retiree grants permission to let his number be worn. Jerseys can be honored under the policy, but numbers can still be worn.

Only one number has been retired under the new policy - BJ McKie's No. 3 was raised to the rafters in 2005, a fitting status for the Gamecocks' all-time career scorer. Despite the jerseys-not-numbers policy, no Gamecock has worn No. 3 since McKie finished his career. There haven't been many other athletes that have fit the profile, or had the requisite five-year waiting period.

Holbrook wants to change that. On this year's fall baseball roster, he kept two numbers from being issued to a player - No. 1 and No. 29. The first is Ray Tanner's, who moved on to athletic director, and the second is Michael Roth's.

Tanner, who took the program from consistently good to a powerhouse and won two national championships, definitely deserves to have his No. 1 hanging somewhere at USC. Roth, the winningest pitcher in College World Series history, would be a candidate as well.

The only problem I have with it is making sure the honor remains exclusive. There have been so many great USC players that it's hard to single out the "best" ones.

Bobby Richardson (No. 7) got the program off the ground. June Raines (No. 16) kept the program nationally relevant and still holds the program's career wins mark, since Tanner stepped down 26 wins from taking over.

Kip Bouknight (No. 14) was a Golden Spikes Award winner. Justin Smoak (No. 12) is a record-holder in career home runs and RBIs (and his homer record broke the mark of another No. 12, Hank Small).

But what about the others? Matt Price is a career leader in saves and there's hard to find another who meant more to the program over the past three years. His No. 22 has been issued to freshman Max Schrock this year. While Scott Wingo doesn't have a lot of records (although he is the career leader in hit-by-pitches), I always thought that there was nobody who defined USC baseball more than the dirt-covered scrapper from Mauldin. His No. 8 jersey was given to freshman T.J. Costen last year, and Costen continues to wear it this year.

One can go on and on debating who deserves it (Earl Bass? Mookie Wilson? Randy Martz? Steve Pearce? Mac White? Whit Merrifield?), which brings forth another problem. What the Gamecocks don't want to do is have their outfield wall resemble the New York Yankees or Duke basketball - where there are so many jerseys retired that it's difficult to remember all of them, or for new players to find a number to wear.

USC's policy of only retiring jerseys and not numbers could help that, although it brings forth the potential question of a player coming in and presumably wearing the same number, but not doing much with it. It would be a strange sight to see some other No. 29 warming up pitchers in the bullpen, with an honored No. 29 hanging on the wall just to his right.

Taking all of that into account, I don't think it's such a good idea to honor or retire numbers. Hey, John Wooden never had a number retired at UCLA under his watch, because he always said the previous wearers of the number also contributed to the success. Keeping a number vacant is one thing, and I think that's probably the best option. Besides, it also always struck me as curious that Carolina Stadium has its national championship signage displayed, but doesn't have SEC/SEC East championships or NCAA tournament appearances displayed on the playing field.

It's the sign of a great program. There have been so many greats to come through that to honor one leaves many others in the cold.

And with success breeding success, it brings up the problem of having one number honored for a record, only to see that record smashed within a few years. You're seeing in football that a record-holder currently displayed on the ramps at Williams-Brice Stadium won't necessarily be displayed next year.

Holbrook has the right idea, but with the five-year window in mind, there's no telling when the next Michael Roth will step onto the diamond. Best to just let the numbers live on in memory, rather than a sign on the wall.



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