Opinion

Opinion: Why Yankee newbie Todd Frazier wearing “Paul O’Neill’s No. 21” isn’t a big deal

Todd Frazier #29 of the New York Yankees warms up at third base during the game against the Minnesota Twins on July 19, 2017 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Yankees 6-1. (Photo By: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

It was almost four months ago, back in early April, when WFAN radio analyst Suzyn Waldman reported a false rumor on air regarding Clint Frazier. She stated that the former Yankee prospect asked the organization if they could one day “un-retire” Mickey Mantle’s iconic No. 7.

Once the word was out, fans and pundits erupted. How dare Frazier make such a foolish, impractical, egregious request, and completely disregard Yankee lore and disrespect Mantle’s storied Hall-of-Fame career. Until Frazier responded to the rumor — and along with the Yankees, refuted the story’s claims — one of the franchise’s top farmhands was being chastised before he could even set foot in a Major League ballpark.  Now, time has passed (along with that rumor), and Frazier’s certainly warmed up to many since making his Big League debut in early July. But here’s the takeaway from all of this: Frazier was given a bad rap from the get-go, only because those particular fans and pundits called out Frazier for not being cut from the traditional cloth, as if that’s the end-all be-all of qualified Yankees.

Anyway, fast forward to today, and the “controversy” involving uniform numbers has returned. Although Frazier is a part of this story (he gave his No. 30 to newly acquired reliever David Robertson and fittingly replaced it with No. 77 — Mantle’s number twice, if the word “fittingly” went unnoticed), the main character happens to be another player named Frazier, who, quite frankly, isn’t in the wrong. Yes, that’s a long sentence. It’s probably best to breathe and take it word by word before continuing.

Todd Frazier grew up in New Jersey. He grew up a Yankee fan. In 1998, when his Toms River Little League squad won it all in Williamsport, Frazier was given the opportunity to stand next to Derek Jeter during the national anthem at Yankee Stadium. So when the 31-year-old corner infielder was traded from the Chicago White Sox to New York in a blockbuster deal made on Tuesday night, it’s fair to assume he was rather happy.

But it didn’t take long for Frazier to receive some sour looks by fans. On Wednesday, the Yankees’ newbie told reporters that he likes the No. 21, and that he intends to ask Paul O’Neill — Frazier’s favorite player growing up — for permission to wear it. Utterly ridiculous, right? Yeah, not really.

Perhaps it’s best to completely separate C. Frazier’s case from this, and have the primary focus set on T. Frazier instead. If some are of the belief that these stories go hand in hand, here’s where they deviate entirely.

For one, Mickey Mantle was a quintessential Yankee. Without his bat during the 1950’s and 60’s, who knows how many championships the franchise would’ve won. His accomplishments were astounding (take a look at his numbers), and that’s why he’s still worshiped by the older generations who were alive to witness his abilities. That’s why he was enshrined in Monument Park. That’s why his No. 7 has been out of circulation for almost 50 years.

As for Paul O’Neill, it’s an insult for Mantle to be mentioned in the same breath as him. Now, before there’s another uproar, this isn’t an attack on O’Neill, or what he happened to accomplish in his career. There’s no disputing that O’Neill was a pivotal Yankee during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and that he helped the franchise form their latest dynasty. But why hasn’t O’Neill’s number been retired in Monument Park? It’s because he isn’t on the same level as other Yankee greats, and even the fans who love O’Neill the most can admit to that.

It’s time to put an end to this unwritten rule with the Yankees, that a player — in this case, someone who’s been gone from the game for 16 years — deserves “his” number to be locked away and never used again. Yes, O’Neill was honored with a plaque in Monument Park, but it wasn’t because of his greatness — it was because of the fans’ nostalgia — their longing for the past — and it’s one of the reasons why the special resting place for Yankee ghosts has lost its pizzazz over the years. 

Frazier may only live out his dream of playing with the Yankees for two and a half months, as he’s eligible for free agency this offseason. But handing “O’Neill’s number” over to Frazier wouldn’t be profane or a waste. It would hopefully erase the absurd belief that non-Yankee greats deserve the same treatment as the truly special ones.

If you want to connect with Tom Hanslin, email [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @tomhanslin.

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