Numbers Racket

Athletes can be attached — figuratively, of course — to their uniform numbers.  Famously, the wide receiver born Chad Johnson renamed himself “Chad Ochocinco,” a Spanish-ish reference to his uniform number, 85.  (“Ocho Cinco” is “Eight Five;” “eighty five” would be “ochenta y cinco.”)  In the world of sports, especially when superstitions can be exceptional, a player’s uniform number is not simply a random designation.  But when a player changes teams, sometimes, his much-loved uniform number is already taken.  What is a superstar to do?

Pony up.

In 1993, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson found himself traded, shipped off by the Oakland A’s to Toronto.  He had worn #24 since joining the Yankees in 1985 (save for a few weeks in 1989) and wanted to don that same number, now as a member of the Blue Jays.  But another outfielder, Turner Ward, already had #24.  Henderson saw an easy solution.  Ward’s salary for the season was $160,000; Henderson’s was north of $3 million — and he received $300,000 extra in exchange for consenting to the trade.  Henderson wrote Ward a check for $25,000 for the number.

Since then, pro sports have seen similar exchanges.  Pitcher Roger Clemens gave slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado a Rolex, valued at $20,000, for uniform #21.  Former NBA player Vin Baker once bought his number from another player for the relative bargain price of $10,000.   In 2007, NFL player Jason Simmons used the opportunity to do a good deed, giving new teammate Ahman Green #30 if Green agreed to pay the down payment on a home for a disadvantaged single-parent family.

Former NFL punter Jeff Feagles is one of the few who has been able to sell a number twice — although with mixed results.  His first transaction, with quarterback Eli Manning, went smoothly, and Feagles got a family vacation to Florida out of the deal.  His second one, however, did not go so well.  When wide receiver Plaxico Burress joined the New York Giants in 2005, he bought #18 off Feagles in exchange for an outdoor kitchen.  But as of August 2010, Feagles had not received the kitchen. (Apparently, this was unrelated to the fact that by this point, Burress was in prison for accidentally shooting himself in the leg at a New York City night club.)

While hiccups in these transactions are rare, Feagles’ story isn’t the only one.  In 2004, NFL running back Clinton Portis offered new Washington Redskins’ teammate Ifeanyi Ohalete $40,000 for uniform #26, payable in three payments.  (Why Portis requested a payment plan is left unknown.)  Before the final $20,000 payment was made, the Redskins cut Ohalete from the team, so Portis, figuring that Ohalete’s claim to the number had lapsed, refused to keep making payments.

Ohalete sued, and the two settled for $38,000 total — but not before Portis suggested an alternative resolution (which sadly, never happened): a boxing match.

Bonus fact: In 1990, Rickey Henderson signed a five year, $8.5 million contract with the A’s, which included a $1 million signing bonus.  About a year later, the A’s were trying to balance their books, and kept coming up $1 million short.  The team called Henderson and asked him what he did with the check.  His answer: He put it up on his wall, uncashed, as a daily reminder that he was a millionaire.

From the Archives: Superstitious Superstar: A baseball player with a belief in certain superstitions… that, probably, no one else believes in.

Related reading: “Now Batting, Number…: The Mystique, Superstition, and Lore of Baseball’s Uniform Numbers,” by Erik A. Bruun.  4.5 stars on 7 reviews.  Not available on Kindle.

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