Retired number name game: Who's deserving?

Retired number name game: Who's deserving?
April 3, 2013, 2:30 pm
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Last night at Staples Center, Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 34 Lakers jersey was raised to the rafters, and in the process, inspired an important question: How long before the Celtics retire Shaq’s No. 36?

The answer: 5,000 years.

But over the next decade or so, thanks to the last decade or so, there will be a collection of Boston athletes who are deserving of that legendary distinction. So let’s take a quick look at the next generation of players who will or might one day have their numbers raised for an eternity.

First, there are the obvious guys. The following five are automatic. There’s no question. No debate. Even if you try, no one will care and it won’t change a thing.

Tom Brady: He may not hang them up for another 20 years, but once he does, that’s a wrap for No. 12.

Paul Pierce: Clinched it in the 2008 Finals, and continues to hammer it home every time he takes the court. When it comes to Pierce and Brady, number retirement may not be enough. We might already be in statue territory. With Brady, we definitely are.

Kevin Garnett: If this is it for KG, he’ll have only spent six years in Boston, but will have changed the franchise forever. No matter what, he deserves to have No. 5 up in the rafters (and we’ll forgive John Bagley if he wants to tell everyone that it’s for him).

David Ortiz: In the 20 years since Wade Boggs jumped to New York, Ortiz is the Sox franchise leader in hits, runs scored, homers, RBI and doubles. Throw in the fact that he’s one of only seven Sox with two World Series rings, was a hero many times over in the first title run, hit .332 with 35 homers, 117 RBI and a career-beat 1.066 OPS in the second championship season and is 23 short of entering the Sox all-time top 10 for games played and . . . yeah, No. 34 will one day be up there in right field at Fenway or wherever the Sox are playing by then. (Note: There’s a slight problem with Ortiz, in that the Sox currently require a player to earn induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame before retiring his number. And of course, there’s a very, very, very good chance that Ortiz never makes it. But in his case, an exception will be made.)

Jackie Bradley Jr.: Just kidding. Or am I?

Next, let’s look at The Patriot Problem. Much like the Celtics after their run through the 60s, the Pats have a difficult task at hand in terms how to honor the key members of their dynasty. How many do you retire? Where do you draw the line?

A good place to start is with three rings. There are 22 players who won three Super Bowl titles with the Patriots, and of those, I’d say 10 are deserving of nomination: Brady, Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown, Matt Light, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Ty Law and Adam Vinatieri.

Assuming that 10 is too many, I’m going to lose Faulk, Brown and Vrabel in the first cut. No disrespect; all three are sure to be inducted (Troy already has) into the Patriots Hall of Fame. But there’s a difference between good/very good and great.

Bruschi probably falls into the very good category, as well. After all, he only made one Pro Bowl. But he was the face of that dynasty defense, and had a little KG in him, in terms of just setting the tone and enriching the culture. McGinest was right there with Bruschi, but made one more Pro Bowl.

Seymour was an anchor; it’s not a coincidence that they started winning right after he showed up and haven’t won since he left. Still, he’s been gone for so long and left under such trying terms, it seems like a lost cause.

Ty Law made the biggest interception in franchise history, and was the foundation of that secondary during the Golden Years. He didn’t always get along with Bill Belichick, but he always answered the call.

Matt Light may be the dynasty’s most unsung hero, the man who was in charge of protecting Tom Brady for more than a decade.

Finally, none of this would have been possible without Vinatieri, even if that’s just a reference to one kick in the snow.

You know, the more that I think about it, the more fitting it would be for no one (besides Brady) from this era to have their number retired. In the same way they were defined in the moment by the desire to be introduced as a team, maybe they should be remembered the same way. But if we have to choose, here’s who I’d like to see up there with No. 12:

No. 54: The only linebacker to have his number retired by the Pats is Steve Nelson, who was an absolute beast for 14 seasons in New England. But when you take a step back, who had a bigger impact throughout Patriots history. Who left a greater mark in making this team what it was and what it is today?

No. 24: The only cornerback to have his number retired by the Pats is Mike Haynes, who played seven seasons in New England before moving on to bigger things in Oakland. Haynes finished his Patriots career with 28 interceptions and one defensive touchdown. He played in three playoff games, had zero interceptions and New England lost all three.

OK, I’m done killing Haynes; the guy’s a Hall of Famer. But by comparison, Law played 10 seasons in New England. He’s tied for the franchise lead with 36 career interceptions and is the all-time leader with six defensive touchdowns. He played in three Super Bowls (he was on the IR in 2004), and had four career playoff interceptions (including the Super Bowl 36 game-changer). He deserves to have his number retired.

No. 72: Matt Light’s career was not as dominant as Bruce Armstrong’s, but again, by comparison, who ultimately left a greater mark on this franchise? How does it get more important than being the guy who protected (AND SUCCEEDED IN PROTECTING) Tom Brady. Light was a career Patriot, a three-time World Champ, and should be immortalized forever.

No. 4: Vinatieri probably belongs in the automatic category, but in the name of everyone who still hasn’t forgiven him for bolting to the Colts, let’s stick him here. That said, No. 4 should be retired. No question.

One more thing on the Pats. Actually, three more things:

1) Vince Wilfork: He only has one ring, but depending on how these next few years go, there may be a serious argument to be made.

2) Rodney Harrison: The similarities between he and Kevin Garnett are more glaring than you think. Both were here for limited time after a long, illustrious career with one other team. Both arrived in Boston and became an immediate leader, emotionally and physically. Both came to define and anchor a championship defense. Both gave every ounce of heart and energy they had, every single time they took the court/field. In the end, the biggest difference might be that Harrison helped lead the Pats to two titles, while KG only got one.

Not sure if it will happen, but No. 37 deserves some serious consideration.

3. Gronk: Health is huge. It’s way too early. But let’s just say maybe.

When it comes to the Red Sox, there’s one enormous Wild Card.

Manny Ramirez: Personally, I think No. 24 should be retired. I think No. 24 is the best right-handed hitter in Red Sox history. I think that his acquisition was one of the defining moments in Red Sox history. He’s the one guy where you can say: The Red Sox never win a World Series without him.

On the other hand, a lot of folks around here obviously hate him. He did some awful things and some treated people in awful ways. He only played seven and a half years in Boson, and the Sox currently require 10 years for retirement. You know what else? He was very likely on steroids.

But he’s a Red Sox legend. For all the aggravation, he brought this town more happiness, satisfaction and redemption than few players before or since. Plus, can you imagine his speech? Can’t we please just do it for the SPEECH?!

Other retired Red Sox candidates include Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and I think that’s it. Personally, I’d say Varitek is a bit of a stretch. He was a captain and a great leader (until 2011), but he was not a legendary talent. Same goes for Wakefield.

Can you make an argument for Curt Schilling?

Sure, he helped change the culture the same way KG and Harrison did. He’s one of only seven Sox with two World Series rings (the others are Mike Timlin, Kevin Youkilis, Doug Mirabelli, Wake, Manny and Ortiz.) But in the end, thanks to injuries, Schilling was only truly great for one season. We’ll never forget him, but that’s not enough for a retired number.

But back to Pedro: I don’t think there’s a fan in New England who would have a problem with No. 45 being immortalized at Fenway. And now that he’s back with the organization, there’s a greater chance that the Sox will someday overlook his first few years with the Dodgers and Expos, his last few years with the Mets and Phillies and ultimately bestow Pedro with the ultimate honor. The most deserving honor. Unfortunately though, thanks to the politics, it’s not a sure thing.

As for current Sox, other than Bradley and Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia is the only guy who will sniff a big right field baseball, but to make it he’ll have to probably win another World Series and/or fight off the injury bug and stay on top of his game for at least another five years. That’s not a knock on Pedey. Again, we have to remember the level of performance associated with a retired number. There’s a difference between being a great, great player and an all-time great player. And Pedroia’s not quite there yet. Considering where he came from, the fact that we’re even having this conversation is an achievement in and of itself.

OK, onto the Celtics.

Pierce and KG are in. Ray Allen is not. And when you look at the rest of this roster, there’s only one other guy with rafter potential — Rajon Rondo.

Of course, we need to see what happens. The last few months don’t speak volumes about his future with this team. Or if they do, they don’t speak well.

Even if Boston holds on to No. 9 for the extent of his contract, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be back. That will obviously be necessary for him to one day find his way up to Pierce and KG.

But, let’s just say he does finish his career in Boston. And finishes with assists and steals totals that absolutely obliterates anything that this franchise has seen? At that point, Rondo will garner some legit consideration. If he can somehow add another title to the C’s trophy case, it will be automatic.

Finally, let’s wrap things up with the Bruins, Tim Thomas had a great shot before sabotaging everything. Tyler Seguin is way too young, but you have to consider the possibility. The two guys with the most realistic chance?

Zdeno Chara: The captain of the greatest Bruins team in 40 years. If they can raise one more Cup, Z’s No. 33 will be raised on the banner. Even if they don’t, a few more great seasons may very well seal the deal.

Patrice Bergeron: He’s only 27 years, which is crazy since he’s been playing for the Bruins for the last 25 years. Still, Bergeron has consistently and quietly (and through all sorts of hardship) established himself as the backbone of this organization, and as a player who will forever standout among this currently stacked roster. Assuming he sticks around, and the Bruins continue to have success, there’s no doubt that Bergeron’s No. 37 will be up their in the Garden rafters.

In about 5,000 years, to be joined by Shaq’s No. 36.