Retired numbers: Toronto Blue Jays

Canada’s team has honored just two of its former stars; is a third on the horizon?

Only two big-league clubs have been more hesitant than the Toronto Blue Jays to retire the numbers of their greatest stars.

Miami has not yet deigned to honor any of its alums, and Colorado has celebrated just Todd Helton. (The Rockies, to be fair, also intend to retire Larry Walker’s number whenever fans are allowed back into Coors Field.)

Next in the standings is Toronto, which has retired only a pair of jerseys, tying it with Seattle and two newer clubs (Arizona and Tampa Bay) for third place on this list of reluctance.

Yet an important distinction should be made. The teams with the fewest retired digits, the Marlins and Rockies, are youthful in baseball terms, having joined the National League in 1993. The Jays and the Mariners, on the other hand, date back to 1977. That means they’re a decade and a half older, and their histories are considerably richer.

I’ll deal with the Mariners when this every-other-Friday series winds its way to M in alphabetical order, which should occur in late February. My focus today is strictly on the Blue Jays and their evident unwillingness to withdraw uniform numbers from circulation.

It’s not that the club willfully ignores its past, not at all. The Jays long ago established the Level of Excellence as their highest honor — something akin to a separate hall of fame for the franchise. Seven players, two administrators, a manager, and a broadcaster have been installed.

The team maintained an unspoken policy against jersey retirements for more than three decades, finally succumbing in 2011. The only two honorees have been a pair of Toronto stars who are enshrined in Cooperstown.

Blue Jays’ numbers already retired

The Jays made their initial exception for No. 12 Roberto Alomar, the first ex-player to have his number retired. It was an obvious choice in one regard — he is a Hall of Famer, after all — yet curious in other respects.

Alomar played only five of his 17 seasons in Toronto (1991-1995), and they weren’t even his best. A case could be made that he peaked in Cleveland between 1999 and 2001, when he finished third in balloting for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award one year and fourth in another. He never ranked higher than sixth in any MVP race with the Jays.

Alomar fled Toronto in free agency before the 1996 season. He landed in Baltimore, where he batted .312 over three seasons, exceeding his .307 for the Jays. Then he became a free agent a second time, jumping to Cleveland in 1999. He batted .323 for the Indians over three years.

Not every club has been so forgiving to a star who departed as a free agent. So why did Toronto salute Alomar?

The reason, of course, is that the Jays won a pair of world titles with him at second base. He was the MVP of the American League Championship Series in 1992 and batted .347 in that World Series and the one that followed. Winning covers a multitude of perceived shortcomings.

No. 32 Roy Halladay was more deeply embedded in Toronto history, spending the first 12 years of his career pitching for the Jays. He picked up a Cy Young Award and 148 victories before being traded to Philadelphia, where he won another Cy and 55 games during his final four seasons.

But Halladay’s heart was in Canada. He signed a one-day contact to officially retire as a Blue Jay. The team reciprocated his affection by pulling his number out of circulation.

Blue Jays’ candidates for retired numbers

If the Jays confine themselves to retiring the jerseys of Hall of Famers, they may have to wait awhile. Toronto has no obvious candidates on the horizon.

A loosening of the internal policy, however, could bring consideration to these six ex-players and managers, listed in numerical order:

  • No. 1 Tony Fernandez was never a major star, but he did possess a magnetic attraction to the Jays, spending four stints in Toronto (1983-1990, 1993, 1998-1999, 2001). The shortstop remains the club’s all-time leader in games played at 1,450 and hits at 1,583.

  • No. 19 Jose Bautista (2008-2017) was named to six straight All-Star teams as Toronto’s right fielder. He is second in franchise history with 288 home runs, and he’s third with 38.2 wins above replacement.

  • No. 25 Carlos Delgado (1993-2004) was a fixture at first base in Toronto for nearly a decade. No Jay has ever made more plate appearances (6,018), hit more homers (336), scored more runs (889), or plated more RBIs (1,058).

  • No. 37 Dave Stieb (1979-1992, 1998) has impressive pitching credentials. If you go for new-age stats, Stieb is the franchise’s all-time leader in wins above replacement (56.8). If you don’t, he’s also the leader in wins (175) and strikeouts (1,658). Stieb deserved to win the Cy Young Award in 1982, yet lost (inexplicably) to Pete Vuckovich.

  • No. 43 Cito Gaston was always a controversial figure in Toronto. Critics routinely disparaged his managerial skills. But, hey, he brought two World Series trophies to Canada. And that’s two more than anybody else.

  • No. 50 Tom Henke (1985-1992) saved 217 games out of the bullpen, still the highest total in team history. His most important saves were three in the American League Championship Series and two in the World Series that brought Toronto its first title in 1992.

The outlook

The 30th anniversary of the Jays’ first world championship is a bit more than a year away. The club appears to be on the upswing again, and a tie-in to past glory might be nice. Why not a jersey retirement or two?

But it’s hard to single out a relevant choice. Stieb played a key role in developing Toronto’s winning tradition, though his skills faded before the payoff. He made only 14 starts for the Jays in 1992, then signed with the White Sox the following year. Henke also left as a free agent after ’92. Fernandez rejoined the team only in mid-1993, and Delgado was a rookie the same year.

And that’s it. None of these players made the full ride through both championship seasons.

Stieb posted the best overall numbers during his Toronto career, even better than Alomar’s or Halladay’s, and he certainly seems deserving of a retirement ceremony someday. Delgado also appears to be worthy of consideration. But perhaps the best candidate is Gaston, who accomplished something that nobody else in Blue Jays history ever has, critics be damned.

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