The Yankees already have retired the numbers of nearly two dozen players, but which player will be the next to be enshrined in Monument Park?
When a franchise is as storied and illustrious as the New York Yankees franchise is, it is bound to have its fair share of fantastic players who had memorable careers with the team. However, among those phenomenal players are a select few who meant so much to the organization and fanbase that the team deems it fit to forever immortalize them by retiring their number, meaning it can never be worn by anyone else who plays for the team in the future.
The Yankees are no exception to this, as they have retired 22 uniform numbers, 23 including Jackie Robinson’s #42 that is retired throughout Major League Baseball. The most recent player the Yankees bestowed this honor upon was Derek Jeter, whose iconic #2 was retired in 2017. While looking at the numbers the team has retired can give you a pretty good idea of the players who have meant a lot to the franchise, there are still some players who captured the hearts of Yankees fans worldwide and gave their everything to the pinstripes but have yet to see their numbers retired.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some candidates for who could be the next Yankee to see their number retired and placed in Monument Park.
Having just retired a number of months ago, the big lefty would likely have to wait a few years before the Yankees retire his number, but his resume in pinstripes speaks for itself. Sabathia was a main component of the free-agent splurge that Brian Cashman went on following an underwhelming 2008 season in which the team missed the playoffs for the first time since the early 1990s, a very disappointing way to say goodbye to the old Yankee Stadium. Sabathia lived up to the hype, as he was the team’s ace and a true workhorse during their 2009 World Series run, and was a perennial Cy Young contender year after year at the start of his Yankees tenure. It wasn’t all a walk in the park for Sabathia, though. He struggled mightily for multiple seasons following three consecutive All-Star appearances from 2010-2012.
Not only did his on-field performance suffer, but he persevered through hardships off the field as well, as he checked himself into rehab for alcoholism in October of 2015 on the eve of the team’s Wild Card Game against the Astros. After he got himself right, Sabathia enjoyed a career resurgence in 2017. He cemented himself as a leader in the clubhouse, especially amongst the team’s pitchers, and he turned into a reliable starter for the back end of the rotation, learning to work with his offspeed pitches now that his days of throwing gas were over.
Towards the end of his career, Sabathia was pitching through severe knee pain during all his starts, but his moment of truth “leaving it all on the field” came when he separated his shoulder in ALCS Game 4 in 2019. A true competitor to the end, he even stayed on the mound to throw a few more pitches with his separated shoulder before the training staff told him he could do so no longer. In his 11 years with the Yankees, Sabathia revitalized himself as a pitcher, conquered his inner demons, gave back to the community through his PitCCh In Foundation, literally pitched until his body would no longer let him, and brought home a World Series title. There is not much more you can ask of a player. All this being taken into consideration makes him a prime candidate to have his #52 go up beside the other legends in Monument Park.
While Sabathia was universally beloved in Yankeeland for most of his tenure with the team, Rodriguez’s relationship with the organization, fans and even with MLB as a whole was far more contentious. His numbers with the team speak for themselves: over 1,500 games played, 351 home runs, 1,096 RBIs, a .283/.378/.523 slash line, seven All-Star Game appearances, and one World Series title that he was a major part of. Where A-Rod’s retired number case gets tricky, however, is when it comes to his tumultuous relationship with the Yankees and with MLB. Rodriguez was suspended in 2009 for a failed steroid test, and while his numbers were forever tainted, he seemed to have at least partially won back the hearts of many Yankees fans when he contributed so much to the team’s World Series run. Things would get uglier again, however.
After a spat with the Yankees in 2013 over the use of a personal doctor to seek a second opinion on an injury, Rodriguez got tied up with performance-enhancing drugs for a second time, this time finding himself at the center of MLB’s Biogenesis scandal. In a nutshell, Rodriguez was one of many players whom Dr. Tony Bosch had distributed PEDs to, and his case was particularly unique among the players in the scandal given that he was a repeat offender of steroid usage. Rodriguez was suspended for the full 2014 season. He put together an impressive 2015 season after serving his suspension, posting his first 30 homer season since 2010. However, after struggling for many months to start the 2016 season, Rodriguez and the Yankees came to a mutual agreement that it was time for his playing tenure with the Bombers to end.
He switched to a front-office role after playing his last career game in August of 2016. In his years since retiring from the game, Rodriguez has become beloved as a broadcaster and seems to have somewhat reversed his negative reputation that at a time seemed irreparable. His reworked relationship with the Yankees and with baseball as a whole coupled with the fact that he was indisputably one of the Yankees’ greatest offensive players of the 21st century thus far makes a strong case for his #13 to be immortalized in Monument Park.
O’Neill’s case to get his number retired is one that has been hotly debated among Yankees fans for many years. A fan favorite during his nine years in the Bronx, “Paulie” was a staple of the team’s four World Series titles from 1996-2000, compiling four All-Star appearances during his time with the team while recording 1,426 hits, 185 homers, and 858 RBIs in 1,254 games. Only once playing under 125 games in a season, O’Neill truly lived up to his nickname of “The Warrior”, as the hardnosed right fielder exemplified consistency in a ballplayer. He was never one of the flashy, exciting players, and while the “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada get much of the credit for the team’s dominance in the late 1990s, O’Neill’s role as a reliable offensive and defensive contributor on those teams cannot be discounted in the slightest.
His solid numbers certainly don’t scream “Hall of Famer”, but O’Neill without question holds a significant place in Yankee lore for his contributions to those teams. With all this being said, O’Neill is approaching 20 years since his retirement, and the Yankees have yet to retire his #21. Rather, #21 seems to be in some strange purgatory where it is not formally retired but players are frowned upon for wearing it. The most notable instance of this came in 2008 when journeyman reliever LaTroy Hawkins took the number at the end of Spring Training and was ruthlessly booed by fans until he finally surrendered the number in mid-April. When the Yankees acquired Todd Frazier in the middle of the 2017 season, Frazier had said in a postgame interview that he was interested in wearing #21 to honor his idol O’Neill as he had done in Cincinnati and Chicago, but fans’ insistence that the #21 stay unworn in O’Neill’s honor led to Frazier settling for #29 instead.
In recent years, the Yankees have retired the numbers of the “Core Four” as well as of Joe Torre and Bernie Williams, all staples of the 1990s dynasty Yankees, so it seems strange that O’Neill is exempt from this group given his contributions to those teams. The Yankees cannot keep #21 “unofficially” off-limits forever, so they must finally come to an official conclusion on whether it should be retired or should be available to players to wear.