Kansas City Royals: The Curious Case of #29

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For many franchises, retiring numbers is a touchy subject. Some franchises have been criticized for having too high of standards for retirement (a few require Hall of Fame induction), while others have been chastised for retiring the numbers of players deemed undeserving.

Of course, it makes sense as to why, as retiring one’s number permanently is a huge honor that will spotlight those lucky players for generations after their career ends. Their number will hang prominently within their team’s home stadium forever.

With the Kansas City Royals, they have traditionally been quite stingy with retired numbers. The only honorees are George Brett, an inner-circle Hall of Famer who played his entire 21-year career in Kansas City, Frank White, a Kansas City native who played all 18 of his seasons with the Royals and literally helped build Kauffman Stadium, and Dick Howser, who managed the 1985 World Champions, only to tragically succumb to a brain tumor less than two years later.

There are many other candidates who could’ve had a similar honor.

Paul Splittorff (#34) was the first Royals draft pick to reach the majors and is the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, innings, and games started before becoming a popular color commentator on Royals TV broadcasts in retirement.

Bret Saberhagen (#19 and 31) won two Cy Young Awards and was 1985 World Series MVP. Kevin Appier (#55) and Amos Otis (#26) have more WAR than any Royal besides Brett. Willie Wilson (#6) and Hal McRae (#11) both had long, productive careers in Kansas City (and were part of most of the best Royals teams). From the 2015 team, Alex Gordon (#4) also has an argument, as does Ned Yost (#3). Salvador Perez (#13) absolutely will be in the discussion post-retirement.

Then there’s the case of #29.

Though he was the fourth Royal to wear it, the number first became synonymous with Dan Quisenberry, the quirky, well-spoken submariner who looked and talked like a college professor but was actually the top reliever in the American League for the first half of the 1980s.

Alas, after 10 years in a Royals uniform, Quisenberry was released in July 1988 and his number was re-issued nearly immediately to Rey Palacios. It was passed around several times in the early 1990’s, culminating in three players wearing #29 in 1995: Vince Coleman, Jon Nunnally, and rookie catcher Mike Sweeney.

Of course, Sweeney blossomed into a five-time All-Star first baseman who retired ranking in the top five in Royals history in batting average, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, offensive WAR. Furthermore, he is a model citizen off the field and is still involved in the Royals organization in retirement. He is widely respected enough that after he left the franchise in 2007, his #29 was not re-issued. To this day it has remained in limbo: not retired, but still sitting on the rack of unused jerseys.

The Case For Retirement

If the #29 were to be retired, it seems like a foregone conclusion that it will be a joint retirement; both Sweeney and Quisenberry would be noted as the retirees, not one or the other. Given their on-field accomplishments and admirable traits as human beings, it’s unfair to choose one or the other.

The fact that both were excellent players and excellent human beings is the first argument. Quiz was beloved in Kansas City in his time. Sweeney was a convenient lightning rod for Royals fans later in his career when he was oft-injured and toiling away on atrocious teams, but seems to be looked at more favorably in retirement (after all, those early 2000’s Royals teams had much bigger fish to fry).

With Quisenberry, his arguments include leading the AL in saves five times. He and Mariano Rivera are the only five-time recipients of the Rolaids Relief Man Award. Among Royals with over 500 innings, he is the franchise’s career leader in ERA with his 2.55 ERA being tops by half a run. His 674 games pitched and 244 saves are both second (to Jeff Montgomery).

Another reason in his favor is his incredible story. He signed as an undrafted free agent for $500—but only because the Royals needed a minor leaguer and the signing scout happened to know of Quisenberry’s older brother. He had no raw stuff, couldn’t break a windowpane with his fastball, but he had impeccable control and natural sink on his pitches and made it to the majors. Tragically, though, like Howser, he was taken too soon by a brain tumor, passing away in 1998. He was only 45 years old.

When he was dying, former Kansas City Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski asked him, “Do you ever ask, ‘Why me?’”

“No,” he responded. “Why not me?”

Sweeney’s tale is not nearly as incredible and fortunately, he is still with us, but nonetheless, it’s an admirable tale. A tenth-round draft pick in 1991, he muddled through three mediocre seasons splitting time at catcher. In 1999, though, first baseman Jeff King surprised literally everyone by retiring in mid-May. Suddenly the Royals needed a first baseman. Sweeney was ready and willing.

He hit .322 with 22 homers and 102 RBI. The next year he set a Royals record with 144 RBI and made the first of four consecutive All-Star teams. In 2002, he hit .340, the highest average by a Royal not named George Brett. His .333 mark in 2000 is the second-highest non-Brett average. He averaged 4.1 WAR per season from 1999-02, despite being a below-average defender.

In an era where the Royals were rudderless, dysfunctional, and a laughingstock, Sweeney was a legitimate star. Even more admirably (or crazy), at a time where budding stars like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Jermaine Dye were being shed left and right because the Royals knew they stood no chance of keeping them once they hit free agency, Sweeney chose to re-up in Kansas City with a five-year extension in 2002.

Unfortunately, injuries and father time caught up to him, as he notched just 5.3 WAR over the life of that contract and never played more than 122 games over that span, leading to the criticism and fan frustration. Nonetheless, he continued to show steadfast loyalty to the organization that drafted and developed him.

One last argument in favor of a joint retirement is the fact that it has been done twice before. Granted, all four players involved are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but the Chicago Cubs have retired #31 for both Greg Maddux and Fergie Jenkins, while the New York Yankees retired #8 for both Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra.

The Case Against Retirement

There are valid arguments against retiring #29. First of all, there are arguably several players individually who are more worthy compared to Sweeney and Quisenberry. Second, both of the joint retirements have been in the case of players who were plenty good enough to have their numbers retired individually; they just happened to be issued the number of another Hall of Famer who played on the same team.

The Royals’ stingy standards for retirement seem to be the biggest roadblock of all. While some teams (the Dodgers and Red Sox, notably) require Hall of Fame induction for number retirement, there are no hard-and-fast standards for the Royals. That said, Brett, White, and Howser all had very clear and obvious reasons as to why their numbers were retired.

With Sweeney and Quisenberry, the answers aren’t necessarily as clear. Just being pretty good and well-liked isn’t enough in most cases. If it were, then why not Amos Otis, Willie Wilson, Jeff Montgomery, Bret Saberhagen, and so on? While we’re at it, why not retire Buck O’Neil‘s #22, even though he never had an on-field role with the Royals.

Likewise, every number retired sets a standard for the threshold going forward. Retiring #29 but not some of the other deserving candidates would open the Royals organization up to criticism as to why that one, but not others.

Take the Yankees, for example. They’ve rightfully retired the numbers of 14 Hall of Famers, but others who were very good players, but definitely are short of the Hall, like Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte are in Monument Park as well. Is that right? There are Yankees fans that are certainly split on the issue. No, the Royals aren’t the Yankees and never will be, but in any case, the slippery slope does exist.

Now What?

Nearly 15 years after Sweeney’s final game in a Royals uniform, the #29 jersey has remained on the rack. There have been a smattering of Royals acquisitions in that time who wore #29 elsewhere (Brad Boxberger and Daniel Nava, most notably), but it is unknown if anyone has asked for #29 and been turned down.

Officially there is no status on whether Sweeney and Quisenberry’s former number is even in circulation. Among non-retired numbers issued multiple times, #22 (last worn by Wade Davis in 2013) is the only one that has not been issued in the past five seasons. If Adrian Beltre (whose #29 is retired by the Texas Rangers) would’ve somehow shown up and asked for #29, we don’t know if he would’ve received it or not.

Likewise, should we expect an answer soon? If there hasn’t been one for 15 years, I’m not holding my breath for anything imminent. If I had to guess the next number retirement for the Royals, it’s probably going to be either Alex Gordon or Salvador Perez. As for #29? Well, the Royals will probably still be trying to figure it out…

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main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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