July 03, 2013Having your identity reduced to a number usually isn't a good thing.
Whether your boss only sees you as an interchangeable cog in a vast machine, or whether your worth has been reduced to nothing more than the salary you're owed, numbers are definitely not our friends in these situations.
But in sports, jersey numbers have come to mean so many different things to different athletes.
From the first time a team officially wore numbers in an American professional sporting event—which happened to be Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians in 1929—a bond was formed between athlete and number that has evolved into a multi-layered bond.
The original purpose of jersey numbers was to establish some degree of order for the positions of the players, giving spectators an easy way to identify individual players in uniform.
The Indians—as well as the New York Yankees, who were also scheduled to debut their jersey numbers in 1929, but were relegated to the second team in history to do so because of a rainout—put numbers on their jerseys to indicate a player's spot in the batting order. The Yankees, despite being the second team to wear numbers, popularized this trend because of super-sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The mythology of jersey numbers can, in some ways, be traced back to this moment in history, because Ruth wore number 3 and Gerhig wore number 4 because they batted third and fourth in the lineup, respectively.
Since then, jersey numbers have come to mean different things to different athletes. Some athletes don't really care what number they wear, although my suspicion is that this is less common than the alternative.
For those athletes who do care what number they have, the reasons range from the simple to the superstitious.
The most common reason for an athlete to select a particular number seems to be the desire to carry on the tradition of another outstanding athlete, usually one who played the same position.
Many baseball players wear number 3 because of Babe Ruth—MLB pitcher David Wells, who was a hefty guy, like Ruth, wore number 3 until he signed with the Yankees and had to go with 33 because Ruth's number is retired. Alex Rodriguez had to make a similar switch, but chose 13 instead, which only added to my fervent dislike of him as an athlete, since I like to wear number 13.
In football, it's pretty common to see a defensive back wear number 21 because of Deion Sanders, who was arguably the best shutdown cornerback in football history. Young basketball players often don the number 23 because of Michael Jordan (and, as we all get older, because the kids who watched Space Jam are now old enough to play in the NBA). And many hockey players gravitate toward the number 99 that Wayne Gretzky made famous, although that number has been retired throughout the NHL since 1999, a fitting year in which to honor The Great One.
For me personally, I've always worn number 13 whenever I play sports because my favorite athlete growing up was Dan Marino, former quarterback of the Miami Dolphins and longtime advocate of warm, comfortable hands via the Isotoner gloves marketing campaign. I chose Marino as my favorite player when I was seven years old because, according to seven-year-old logic, he should be my favorite player because we have the same first name.
Since then, I feel a certain bond with my fellow wearers of the 13, perhaps in part because the traditionally-unlucky number has often been shunned in a sports world filled with superstitious traditions. When numbers were first worn back in 1929, the batters in the lineup wore 1–8, the backup catcher wore 9, and the pitchers wore 10–14, but intentionally skipped 13 because of its unfortunate reputation.
In response to a brief jersey number survey I sent out this week, Marissa Valdez, a 2009 Valley Center High School graduate, shared why she chose to wear a number some believe to be unlucky.
"I was always partial to odd numbers growing up, but I specifically remember choosing the number 13 because of high school stand out Isaac Lawson," she wrote. "He was my family friend. He tragically passed away when I was in first grade and from then on I decided that I would wear his number to honor his athleticism and his life. Isaac proved to be a big part of my heart on the field."
Savanna Reilly, who just completed her junior year at VCHS, also chose her jersey number as a way to honor someone special to her.
"My brother passed away at the age of six," she explains. "Everyone in my family had to at least have the number six on their jersey. This number made our family a lot closer with each other and helped us to achieve our athletic goals."
Perris Toedt, who will be a senior at VCHS this fall, took her number 3 from her professional idol, Candace Parker of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks.
"Wearing number 3 in basketball has a good vibe to me because it shows me that no matter what kind of game you are having, you will make it up in your effort and your heart for the game," she explains. "Number 2 in lacrosse helps me by showing me that you just push through and give your 110% you will stop the unstoppable."
Most of the responding athletes had some superstitious or sentimental attachment to their number, whether they had the number growing up or they acquired a good feeling from the number later on.
Kelly Berquist, a 2013 VCHS graduate, has fond memories of her lacrosse jersey number 22.
I had been given this number by my first coach and have always been attached due to the fact that this is the number I wore when I was 10," she wrote. "Being able to have this number through all my years of playing and improving; kind of reminds me of how far I have come."
Tom Aguilar, a 2012 VCHS graduate, admits that he didn't feel right without his favorite number on.
"Baseball is a game of skill, athleticism and superstitions," he wrote. "If I wasn't wearing my #6 jersey then I already knew I was going to have a bad game. The #6 was my second favorite number right next to #8 but I still believed #6 had enough luck to get the job done."
Both Anndrea Torres and Brienna Dunckel shared their approval of the number 11, saying that "You're number one twice!"
Others see their number as a potential warning to the opposition, as 2013 VCHS graduate Matt Preston says of his football jersey number 80.
"Me and my bro wanted to make a statement to the opponent, when you see 80 coming you'll be stopped in your tracks," he says.
And Jasmine Contreras, who is entering her senior year at VCHS, says she wants her jersey number 5 to live on as a reminder to future VCHS softball players of the legacy her team has left behind.
"This number makes me want to represent my school," she wrote. "For example, once I graduate high school I want the next player to feel like she has to work to make the number hers just like how I brought everything onto the field when I played. My number should be 'inspirational' or give the next player motivation to do her best."
Maritza Alvarez, who just graduated from VCHS this spring, says that wearing number 2 has a deeper meaning.
"The first time I got to choose my jersey number, I picked up jersey number to simply look at the jersey with no interest of what number was on the back," she says. "At that exact moment as I was observing the jersey, my coach at the time told me that being second is the first to lose and made me feel bad. He wasn't a very nice coach and I'd always be scared to speak up to him until that moment. I stopped and looked at him and said, 'No, being second means now you have a second chance to be better.' Every time I step on the soccer field I thrive to be better than I was the last time I touched a ball. I never stop trying to beat the me I was yesterday."
And others find different sources of inspiration for their choice of number.
Conrad Murphy, a 2009 graduate of VCHS, wore jersey number 9 in his senior year on the Jaguars' baseball team.
"I chose number 9, because of the commercial where Psych asks Monk his favorite number," he says, explaining that he doesn't put much stock in what number is on the back of his jersey.
VCHS junior Brienna Dunckel, meanwhile, says that, as an underclassman, the only number usually left in her shirt size was 3, so she went with it.
And finally, a pair of local rugby players, John and Chris Turori, shared that rugby numbers are assigned by position, so they want to get one that doesn't leave them sitting on the bench.
"If you get a 1–15 jersey, that means that the coaches think you're the best at that position," says Chris. "There's nothing more satisfying then working hard all week and being given that starting jersey because your coaches believe in you."
John adds that he has a sentimental favorite number, 17, from soccer, but in rugby, he says, "Just give me a number and let me play!"
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If you would like to share your thoughts about jersey numbers, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime.
And be sure to read the full list of responses from the athletes on page