How players are using uniform numbers to break MLB's unwritten rules

MLB players breaking unwritten rules with jersey numbers (1:43)

Joon Lee discusses how players like Aaron Judge choosing odd numbers are breaking the unwritten rules of the baseball. (1:43)

For more than two years, Mallex Smith didn't tell anyone on his team why he wore No. 0.

Back in January 2017, Smith found himself in a whirlwind of trades in one day, going from the Braves to the Mariners -- for all of 77 minutes ("Some of the best 77 minutes of my life," he told The Tampa Bay Times) -- before ending up with the Rays. He'd worn 17 in Atlanta, though he'd always loved 13, a tribute to his love of Jason Voorhees from "Friday the 13th" but infielder Brad Miller already had the number in Tampa Bay.

After talking with some friends from back home in Tallahassee, Florida, Smith landed on 0, the first player in Rays history to sport the number, which drew the interest of the internet. Despite there being nearly 20,000 players in the sport's history, Smith was just the 18th major leaguer to wear 0. Smith, then a second-year pro who hadn't quite established himself as a full-time major leaguer, kept his reasoning close to the vest.

"Zero stems from giving zero f---s about anything anyone has to say about me," Smith said. "That's how the number came. Zero f---s is behind zero."

His teammates laughed when they finally heard the explanation this past offseason, but Smith, now back with the Mariners, notes that just five years ago, that might not have been the case. Baseball's notorious unwritten rules have long marginalized numbers not considered traditional -- you could reliably separate the rookies and the scrubs from the stars based solely on their bizarre, undesirable digits. After all, the practice caught on with the 1929 Yankees of Murderers' Row fame, whose uniform numbers indicated where each hit in the lineup, with pitchers wearing numbers in the teens. Long after position players ditched the lineup-numbering system, pitchers rarely touched single-digit numbers.

But things are changing, say many of the younger players in today's game. Players Weekend has brought new twists, with nicknames and emojis on the backs of jerseys, as baseball slowly moves past its unwritten rules. Players are pushing through needlessly restrictive cultural norms on baseball fields, gaining more and more leeway to express their personalities.

"We need more people that are themselves -- in weird ways," said Rays left-hander and reigning Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, who wears No. 4.

For generations, rookies started their careers with high numbers before switching to lower numbers as they established themselves. Few stars wore numbers higher than 60, let alone 99 like a certain 6-foot-7 slugger in the Bronx does now. Some players expressed themselves with their number choices, nodding to the game's history like Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who wears his No. 2 for Derek Jeter, his favorite player growing up. Some wear their Little League number, while others couldn't care less about the back of their jersey.

One of the new breed, Marcus Stroman, chose No. 6 when the Blue Jays called him up in September 2015. He'd worn the number, a tribute to his late grandma's birthday, in high school, switched to No. 7 while pitching at Duke because 6 was taken, then claimed the number again when he received his second opportunity to stick in the majors. (The 2012 first-round pick had worn No. 54 as a rookie in 2014.)

"I look at the guys that have worn single digits over the years and they're greats. For me, it's a heritage. I know it's going outside of the norm, but maybe it's creating a heritage that pitchers don't have to wear big numbers."
Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake, on why he wears No. 8

"I'm kind of a trendsetter, you know, man? I've kind of always been on my own wave and my own vibe and I think that just kind of fits into me," said Stroman, who's back to wearing No. 7 since being dealt at this year's trade deadline -- making him the first Mets pitcher ever to don a single-digit jersey, according to Uni Watch research. "It's not something that I did like, 'Oh, I want to do this to stand out.' It's literally a number that I wore in high school. I really don't believe in any pitcher shouldn't wear single digits. I've never believed in any of that."

In fact, when Stroman faced Snell at Tropicana Field on April 6, 2017, it marked the first matchup between a pair of single-digit starters since Sept. 14, 1941, when the Boston Braves' Johnny Hutchings (wearing No. 5) took the mound against the Cubs' Johnny Schmitz (wearing No. 7).

Mike Leake seized his opportunity when he signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2016 season, raising a No. 8 jersey at his news conference. Leake wore the number at Arizona State, where he developed into one of best pitchers in college ball while also playing games at first base, second base, shortstop and all three outfield positions, hitting .299 in 97 at-bats.

Knowing the No. 8 fell outside of what many view as an acceptable number on the mound, Leake, who now pitches for the Arizona Diamondbacks, researched the history of pitchers who -- at least at one point in their careers -- wore single-digit numbers. It's a list that includes Hall of Famer Bob Feller and three-time All-Star David Wells.

Leake chose the number hoping to send a message.

"I do find it is something to say, to a degree, that I'm not just a pitcher," said Leake, who has hit six homers in his MLB career. "I look at the guys that have worn single digits over the years and they're greats. For me, it's a heritage. I know it's going outside of the norm, but maybe it's creating a heritage that pitchers don't have to wear big numbers."

Nontraditional numbers have become the norm in New York, where all but one single-digit jersey is retired by the Yankees. Aaron Judge's 52-homer, Rookie of the Year run in 2017 helped make his rare No. 99 the best-selling jersey in the country -- and on baseball's most iconic uniform, to boot. Judge was simply handed the number in spring training in 2016 -- and he has stuck with it ever since. "He's a create-a-player, like someone that you max out all the stats on and then they're just wearing No. 99," said outfielder Clint Frazier, who himself wears No. 77, making him just the second Yankee to do so.

"Numbers that used to be regarded as spring training numbers, numbers in the 70s, 80s and 90s, while they're not common, they're no longer unheard of for the regular season and I do think in some instances, like Aaron Judge wearing 99 and some others, they are a form of self-expression," said Uni Watch founder Paul Lukas, now a staff writer at Sports Illustrated. "At least with some of the higher numbers, you can trace this back to Wayne Gretzky wearing 99, which was just as unheard of in hockey at the time, and then Mario Lemieux wore 66 as his inverted tribute to Gretzky. This may be a rare instance of hockey affecting the uniform culture of another sport."

When the Yankees signed reliever Adam Ottavino this past offseason, they issued No. 0 for the first time in team history. Ottavino never felt particularly attached to a number growing up, so his dad suggested wearing 0 for Ottavino.

It was a contrast from 2010, when Ottavino made his major league debut with the Cardinals. Ottavino said the team turned down his request for a 0. When he asked the Rockies in 2013 for a switch from 37 to 0, they obliged. On April 19 of this year, Ottavino faced Terrance Gore of the Kansas City Royals -- the first 0 versus 0 matchup in major league history.

"I really don't know what to say about it honestly," Ottavino told The New York Times. "Just two guys with a stupid number."

New teammates routinely ask Ottavino for the story behind his number.

"I think, maybe, initially, people might think I'm trying to draw attention to myself, or something, with it," Ottavino said. "But that's not really the case. And once they get to know me, they're cool with it."

The Yankees, who you could argue are running out of numbers, are especially cool with it. One year after then-San Diego reliever Adam Cimber became the first player to wear No. 90, New York handed the same digits this season to infielder Thairo Estrada.

For his part, Snell expressed trepidation about asking for the No. 4 -- his birthday is Dec. 4 -- as a rookie. "I didn't want to be disrespectful towards the vets, so that's why I was scared to be that number," Snell said. "Still, you think about that. I don't want to be rude towards the players who have come up and disrespect what they've done."

Coming up through the minors, Snell asked for the number at every minor league stop, fearing he might not be able to wear it once he reached the bigs. When he reported to Rays spring training, he was initially issued No. 50, which elicited a visceral reaction.

"I don't want that number," Snell thought. "That number sucks."

Cautious of breaking any unwritten rules before he'd thrown a pitch in the majors, Snell turned to veteran Matt Moore for advice.

"Man, No. 4, that's always been the number I wanted," Snell told Moore. "But I play baseball and pitchers don't have single digits."

"Dude, do what you want," Moore told Snell. "Do what's comfortable for you. That's all that matters."

"Guys like us, we didn't like the culture that much when we first got up. You want to be you. You want to be yourself. I think that's what happened: more and more of us thinking the same way, that any young guys come up, let them be themselves. When they show up, it's about winning, but don't pretend to be someone that you're not. That's what happened in this culture of baseball."
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on encouraging younger players to express themselves

Snell still found himself on the butt end of jokes from some veterans as a rookie because of his number. But in 2018, Snell became not only the first pitcher with a single-digit jersey to appear in an All-Star Game, according to Uni Watch research, but later, the first one to win a Cy Young Award.

"When I see a pitcher with a single-digit number, it still looks so weird to me," Lukas said. "I'm wondering how long that will continue to be the case. Will it become normalized in some way? I don't think it looks wrong. I don't object to it, and on some level I enjoy the novelty of it, but I wonder how long it will seem like a novelty."

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who wears 74 -- for his childhood address in Curacao -- said his generation of players, in their early 30s, helped shape the culture among the younger players coming up through the minors, who now feel more freedom to express their personality from day one.

"Guys like us, we didn't like the culture that much when we first got up," Jansen said. "You want to be you. You want to be yourself. I think that's what happened: more and more of us thinking the same way, that any young guys come up, let them be themselves. When they show up, it's about winning, but don't pretend to be someone that you're not. That's what happened in this culture of baseball. I don't care what you do, but respect one another. Be you, but go out there and play as hard as you can."

That impact could be seen directly in the locker rooms at this summer's Futures Game. Mariners pitching prospect Justin Dunn, who has a Black Panther-themed baseball glove, called Stroman a trendsetter, and said he played a major role in him choosing No. 6 -- which is half of a tribute, with his hockey-playing best friend, to Jason Street and Tim Riggins of "Friday Night Lights."

"It's the way we can show our personality and kind of be ourselves, and [still] be courtly," Dunn said.

In 2019, baseball doesn't just compete with whatever else is on TV for the attention of Americans. It's going up against YouTube vloggers, Zion Williamson Instagram highlights, marathon Fortnite sessions and Netflix binging. Leake said he appreciates the heritage and history associated with baseball numbers, but thinks the sport needs to move forward.

"Those times have passed," Leake said. "I think self-expression is allowable now in the game. It's definitely turned into more of an entertainment industry than it was 10, 30 years ago."

Smith has noticed the generational difference between players in their early 20s and older players in the game. Events such as the World Baseball Classic and viral video clips of baseball in other countries have helped open the eyes of many young players to the different cultural approaches to baseball around the world.

"My generation is more of a melting pot," Smith, 26, said. "There's not as much segregation going on, at least culturally, so I think people are going to enjoy the game a lot more."

"Everyone is from different places, and at first, where the game was going, it really wasn't trying to accept differences in culture," Smith said. "They didn't want the culture to be messed up or tainted, but now, with so many different cultural backgrounds in the game, you can't tell somebody what's right or wrong, because you don't necessarily know where they come from and you don't know how they played the game growing up. To say you're wrong for acting like this when you do this is extremely biased and one-sided. More people are catching light of that. There's no typical or standard way to play the game. There's no right way at all."

Baseball has adapted to the times, but slowly and often with false starts. In 1923, the Cardinals became the second major league team to include numbers on uniforms, placed on the uniform sleeve (the Indians tried it first, in 1916). Then-manager Branch Rickey wrote, "Ridicule followed throughout the country, presswise and otherwise." The numbers were removed after three seasons for what Rickey called "continuing embarrassment to the players."

Three years later, Babe Ruth wore No. 3 for the first time.

"Everybody has their take on what's going on, but at the end of the day, it's a consensus that the game is changing and you have your guys that don't like the flash and you have the guys that do," Smith said. "That's never going to change. Everybody can agree to disagree and it's OK. We're evolving."