It was announced recently that, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's major league debut, a number of major leaguers would be wearing his number 42 on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day. The number was officially retired by all major league teams in 1997, but Commissioner Bud Selig approved this "celebration" of Robinson, and freed the number to any major league player.
This may have been a bit much. At first, it was Ken Griffey, Jr. and Torii Hunter who wanted to wear the number. But it has mushroomed, and now over 150 players will be wearing number 42 on April 15.
Cleveland pitcher C.C. Sabathia was not pleased. "It kind of waters it down," he told USA Today. It's easy to see his frustration. The list of players wearing the number includes almost every African-American player in the majors, including some coaches (Harold Baines) and managers (Willie Randolph). As if that weren't enough, five entire teams -- the Dodgers, Pirates, Cardinals, Phillies, and Astros -- will wear the number. (Astute readers have pointed out that the Cardinals and Phillies were the two most vocally anti-Robinson teams when he entered the majors.)
My personal opinion is that it's a noble idea to take Jackie's number, but that this has gone too far. Now it seems as if it's become a quest for good PR, with some teams (the Pirates?!) signing up their players en masse. It's as if baseball thinks it can redeem itself from any taint of racism by wearing a different uniform (rumors that a contrite Don Imus will be wearing number 42 are so far unsubstantiated).
From the player's point of view, it's hard to say no. It sounded a l0t better when the list was limited to prominent African-Americans such as Griffey and Hunter, but then it's not exactly fair to say that only the stars can honor Jackie's legacy. But it also doesn't seem appropriate for it to be a free-for-all.
My solution, to prevent this problem from reoccuring in the future, would be to impose a limit of just one (or two) players from each team to wear the number each year on April 15. This would obviously limit the over-exposure that was so problematic this year. The person could be selected by a team-wide vote, so that it wouldn't just go to the most vocal player or the biggest star (c0aches and managers would be included). It would be on a voluntary basis; teams shouldn't feel like they have to produce a standard-bearer if no one is really worthy of the honor. This would further reduce the over-exposure.
Or, better yet, baseball could go back to enforcing the retiring of Robinson's jersey for good. Because if we can't decide who should and shouldn't be able to wear it, we should just go back to the way it was: no one can wear it.