By Rich Levine
So here was my thought process:
It started with contemplating the fact that Shaquille O'Neal will soon become the first Celtic to ever wear the number 36.
That turned into: "Hmm, I wonder who's the best guy to ever wear No. 36 on the Pats, Sox and Bruins?"
That turned into: "OK, now who were the best guys to ever wear No. 1? How about 2? And, 3?
That turned into: "I wonder which number has hosted the greatest collection of talent? I wonder if there's a way to figure out the "best" number in Boston sports history?
That turned into me going through every number, compiling a starting five of the best guys to wear each one, and then ranking the 10 best .
And that turned into this:
The Top 10 Uniform Numbers in Boston Sports history, as subjectively compiled by one random guy
10. No. 12
Tom Brady made it legendary, but he had a few decent predecessors. First of all, there's Adam Oates, who dropped back-to-back 100-point seasons. A young Ellis Burks and an old Dominique Wilkins wore it, too. As did Wayne Cashman, a big bad ass who won two titles with the Big Bad Bruins.
I know Burks left Boston before hitting his prime, and that 'Nique was here long after his, but both added an undeniable cool factor to their respective teams. Dominique because he was Dominique. But Burks, I don't know, as an 8-year-old kid, I was drawn to him, and I don't really see any argument for him not be in the top five. (Unless you're a big Pumpsie Green fan.)
9. No. 34
No. 34 has two certified legends in Paul Pierce and David Ortiz. Take this back to 2008, when Pierce was fresh off the Finals MVP and Ortiz's body and reputation had yet to completely fall apart, and this uniform number might make a run for the Top 5, but nowadays it's an also-ran. That's partly because Pierce and certainly Papi have seen better days, but also because they don't have much support.
In terms of pure legacy (and in the name of comedy), Rich Garces is the third man on this team. Not only is El Guapo the most lovable reliever in Sox history, but he was pretty damned nasty on the mound. He went 19-3 out of the bullpen from 1999-2001, and over that time, was hands down the Sox' most reliable middle reliever (apologies to John Wasdin). Garces' biggest problem was that his career came about five years too early. If he'd been around in the age of the pink hats, he'd be more than just a cult hero, he'd be a legend. I guarantee you there'd be El Guapo's Grills restaurants scattered through out the city. Oh, well.
Speaking of fan favorites, here's some love for former No. 34 Kevin Turner, who was recently and tragically diagnosed with ALS. Turner will always be remembered as the recipient of one of the most significant catches of the pre-Brady Era. His game-winning grab against the Vikings in 1994 jump-started the 3-6 Pats on a seven-game win streak, and propelled them into the playoffs for the first time since 1986.
For the fifth spot on this team, it's a dogfight between Kevin Gamble and Tebucky Jones, and I think the Super Bowl ring probably gives the edge to Jones. Then again, some guy named Mel Deutsch wore No. 34 for the Sox in 1946. That has to be worth something.
8. No. 9
If there's any current Boston athlete worthy of the nickname "The Kid" it's probably Rajon Rondo. After all, he really is still just a kid, especially in relation to the rest of his teammates.
OK, so maybe that's a huge stretch, but the Celtics "kid" still has something else in common with Ted Williams: No. 9. Johnny Bucyk wore 9 for the B's, and no one's worn it since. But after those two legends, and the one L.I.T. (legend in training), you're looking at a bunch of Dunc Fishers and Greg Minors.&8232;
7. No. 14
No. 14's a sneaky one. There's only one superstar in the lineup, Bob Cousy, and he's on the lower tier of all-time superstar in Boston because of the period during which he played. Still, when you put the Cooz on the same squad as Jim Rice (Baseball Hall of Fame) and Steve Grogan (Patriots Hall of Fame), and add Sergei Samsonov (six solid seasons with the Black and Gold), then suddenly you've got the one of the deeper units in this ridiculous conversation.
As the last man to play in the NHL without a helmet, Craig McTavish would have been a great choice round out the 14s, but given his off-the-ice life, we might need to pass. So how about . . . Ike Delock? Yeah, Ike. He spent his entire career in Boston (1952-63), had three seasons of 10 or more wins, but never played on a team that finished higher than third place. No worries, Mr. Delock. This is your consolation prize. It's well-deserved.
6. No. 8:
Carl Yazstremski was the face of the Red Sox in the '60s and '70s. Cam Neely (with Ray Bourque) led the Bruins from the late '80s into the '90s, which is right around the time when the Celtics drafted Antoine Walker to become the leader of their struggling franchise. All three guys on different levels and in many different ways have left their mark on Boston sports history, and they all wore No. 8. ('Toine even made a commercial about it, but ultimately used the paycheck to buy a gold toilet seat for his pool house bathroom.)
That's a good first three right there. And they've got two quality role players in Scott Wedman, who wore No. 8 on two Celtics championship squads, and Ken Hodge, who wore No. 8 on two champions of his own ('70 and '72 Bruins) and was so proud of his number that he actually had a swimming pool in his backyard in the shape of a No. 8. (Seriously, Wikipedia said.)
5. No. 15:
No. 15 is all (fine, mostly) about the old school.
For starters, you've got the one and only Milt Schmidt which is either the perfect name for an Original Six hockey player, or the name of my grandmother's cobbler. Or maybe it's both. Either way, Schmidt was the leader of the Bruins' heralded "Kraut Line" of the Original Six era. He played 16 seasons for the Bruins (while missing three in between thanks to WWII) and coached the B's for another 11. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961, and had his jersey retired in 1980.
In 1965, the Celtics retired their own No. 15 for some guy named Thomas Heinsohn, and it was during the mid-'60s that another all-time Boston great was making a name for himself with the Patriots.
Quarterback Babe Parilli made three Pro Bowls over his six seasons with the Pats, held the team's TDs in a season record before Brady broke it in 2007, and he and Gino Cappeletti made up a place holderkicker combo that was so smooth they were nicknamed "Grand Opera" (that was cool back then). His real first name was Vito. Enough said.
That's three old-timers, but also all-timers, who are joined on the No. 15 squad by one of the biggest and smallest stars in this newest century of Boston sports: Dustin Pedroia Rookie of the Year, MVP, World Series ring, Gold Glove and he's not even at the midway point of his career.
Rounding out the starting five: How about Kevin Millar? The numbers aren't great, but his legacy is permanent. The guy hit .250 with 2 RBI in the 2004 ALCS, but the Sox don't win that series, or the World Series, without him. It doesn't matter if you're putting together a real life team, or a strange, arbitrary team based on uniform numbers, intangibles matter, and Millar makes these guys better.
4. No. 5
You've got two Hall of Fame big men. First there's Kevin Garnett, who, when you get down to it, is single-handedly (OK, we have to give Danny some credit) responsible for bringing Banner 17 to Boston. And then Bill Walton, the sixth man on the greatest team in franchise (and maybe, league) history. Both guys built reputations elsewhere before ending up in Boston, but all things considered, I think we can give them a pass.
Then there's Nomar Garciaparra, who's also, in a way, responsible for bringing a title to Boston. But regardless of the details of his departure, from 1997-2003, Nomar's No. 5 dominated this city. He was bigger than any current Red Sox player Pedroia, Papi, Lester by a long shot. We always imagined that number was destined for greatness; that it wouldve fit in perfectly alongside the other single digit legends in right field. Obviously, it wasn't meant to be (regardless of what Nomar and Red Sox ownership try to shove down our throats), but for those couple years, it sure felt like it.
No. 5 also boasts the great Dit Clapper a lifelong Bruin, Clapper was the first player in history to notch 20 years in the NHL, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947 a nd Mr. Vern Stephens who averaged 33 homers and 147 RBI a year from 1948-1950 and made three four All-Star teams as a member of the Red Sox.
He was also very fortunate to have been out of the public eye by the time all those bad Ernest movies came out. You know what I mean?
(Little known No. 5 fact: Not a great number if you're a Celtics' first-round pick. Just ask anyone who owns a Ron Mercer, Gerald Green, Kedrick Brown or Jerome Moiso jersey.)
3. No. 4
First of all, you've got Bobby Orr. The greatest Bruin of all time, and probably one of the five greatest Boston athletes of all time along with Russell, Brady, Bird and Williams (rounding out the Top 10 in no particular order I'll say Yaz, Pedro, Bourque, Cousy and Orion Greene.)
Alongside THE Number Four, there's Adam Vinatieri, the most clutch kicker in NFL history and Joe Cronin whose jersey was retired at Fenway in 1984.
That, and the fact that Cronin used to manage the Sox, was about all I really knew about him until now, but the guy also played 19 years in the majors, played in seven All-Star games, drove in 100 runs eight times and was a career .301 hitter.
That gives "No. 4" a nice Big Three, but after that . . . it starts to fall off. Jackie Jensen led the league in RBI three times and won an MVP Award in the '50s wearing No. 4 and then there's a potpourri of scrappy Celtics in a fight for the fifth spot. Alaa Abdelnaby? David Wesley? Tony Battie? A rookie season Chauncy Billups? OK, we'll do that.
2. No. 33:
It's probably the uniform number most synonymous with Boston sports, but Larry Bird isn't the only guy who's worn it well.
There's future Red Sox Hall of Famer Jason Varitek (any coincidence that his career took off once he switched from No. 47?) and future Patriots Hall of Famer Kevin Faulk.
'Tek and Faulk (along with Pierce and Tim Wakefield) are two of only four current Boston athletes who were active (and still local) in the 90s. They've left their mark on a combined five championship trophies, and while they might not be remembered in the same light (or even in the same universe) as Bird, they'll both always be remembered. And that's saying something. (Unless the Mayans were right. Even Terrence Wheatley will still be remembered in 2012.)
Rounding out Team 33, we've got Zdeno Chara enforcer, 2009 Norris Trophy winner and lead blocker Sam Gash, another guy who, like Garces barely missed-timed his entrance on the Boston sports scene.
The fact that Tim McCarver wore 33 for the Sox sullies things a little, they're a strong unit. Still, there's one better.
1. No. 24
No real superduperstar power here. In fact, if you were making a list of the 10 greatest athletes in Boston history (like I did above), you wouldn't have a No. 24 on your list. But this isn't about individuals. This is about the collective. The best team that one uniform number can produce, top-to-bottom. And in that case, No. 24 takes it.
Sam Jones: 10-time champion, 5-time All-Star, one of the 50 Greatest Basketball players in NBA History.
Ty Law: three-time champion, two-time All-Pro, five time Pro Bowler, biggest interception in Patriots history.
Dwight Evans: 19 seasons with the Sox, nearly 400 homers and 2500 hits. Three-time All-Star. Eight time Gold Glover. Legendary 'stache.
Manny Ramirez: Crazy. Unreliable. Selfish. The most talented and entertaining baseball player I've ever watched on a daily basis.
Terry O'Reilly: Crazy, but in a different way than Manny. He was the perfect hockey crazy, and over the course of 14 seasons morphed himself into an all-time fan favorite. Leading the B's to the Stanley Cup Finals as a coach didn't hurt either. Neither did his (sort of) cameo in Happy Gilmore.
This crew is unparalleled. Looking for the best number in Boston sports history?
No. 24 wins in a rout.
Final Random Notes
It hurt not to include No. 6, since it left Bill Russell out in the cold, but there's not much happening at No. 6. Rico Petrocelli? One season of Joe Thornton? Plus, Bill Buckner was wearing No. 6 when the ball went through his legs. That seals it.
Also felt weird not mentioning Pedro, but Raef LaFrentz, Otis Smith and the venerable Dick Pole aren't going to cut it at No. 45. Plus, now I've mentioned Pedro.
Special Award: No. 31 The Announcers
Although it didn't make the Top 10, No. 31 deserves special recognition for the fact that it produced Cedric Maxwell (one of the voices of the Celtics), Gerry Cheevers (the one-time voice of the Bruins) and Dave Roberts (who had a, thankfully, short-lived run in the Red Sox booth). Jon Lester and Joe Johnson (or maybe X-Man?) rounded out that starting five. Not bad.