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The Curious Story of #29 – Overtime Heroism


For many franchises, retirement numbers are a touchy subject. Some franchises have been criticized for having too high standards for retirement (some require Hall of Fame induction), while others have been chastised for removing the number of players deemed unworthy.

Of course, it makes sense to understand why, because permanently retiring his number is a huge honor that will shine a light on these lucky players for generations after their careers are over. Their number will remain prominently displayed in their team’s stadium forever.

With the Kansas City Royals, they’ve traditionally been pretty stingy with retirees. The only winners are George Brettan inner-circle Hall of Famer who played his entire 21-year career in Kansas City, Frank Whitea Kansas City native who played his 18 seasons with the Royals and literally helped build Kauffman Stadium, and Dick Hosserwho captained the 1985 world champions, only to tragically succumb to a brain tumor less than two years later.

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

Paul Splittorf (#34) was the Royals’ first 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 broadcasts retired television.

Bret Saberhagen (#19 & 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 and productive Kansas City careers (and were on most of the Royals’ top teams). From the 2015 team, Alex Gordon (#4) also has an argument, just like Ned Yost (#3). Salvador Perez (#13) will absolutely be in the post-retirement discussion.

Then there is the case of #29.

Although he was the fourth Royal to wear it, the number initially became synonymous with Dan Quisenberrythe eccentric, well-spoken submariner who looked and sounded like a college professor, but was actually the top reliever in the American League during the first half of the 1980s.

Alas, after 10 years in a Royals uniform, Quisenberry was released in July 1988 and his number was reissued almost immediately for Rey Palacios. It was played several times in the early 1990s, culminating in three players wearing #29 in 1995: Vince Colman, Jon Nunnallyand rookie catcher Mike Sweeney.

Of course, Sweeney was a five-time All-Star first baseman who retired in the top five in Royals history in batting average, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, offensive WAR. Additionally, he is a model citizen off the pitch and is still involved in the organization of the retired Royals. He is respected enough that after leaving the franchise in 2007, his number 29 was not reissued. To this day, he has remained in limbo: not retired, but still sitting on the rack of unused jerseys.

The case of retirement

Should No 29 be retired, it seems a foregone conclusion that it will be a joint retirement; Sweeney and Quisenberry would be noted as retirees, not either. Considering their accomplishments on the pitch and their admirable traits as human beings, it’s unfair to choose one over the other.

The fact that both were excellent players and excellent human beings is the first argument. Quiz was beloved in Kansas City in its day. Sweeney was a handy lightning rod for Royals fans later in his career when he was often injured and struggled on atrocious teams, but seems to be viewed more favorably in retirement (after all, those early 2000s Royals teams had many bigger fish to fry).

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

Another reason in its favor is its amazing story. He signed as an undrafted free agent for $500, but only because the Royals needed a minor leaguer and the scout knew Quisenberry’s older brother. He had no raw material, couldn’t break glass with his fastball, but he had impeccable control and a natural sink on his pitches and qualified for the majors. Sadly, like Howser, he was taken too soon by a brain tumor and died in 1998. He was only 45 years old.

When he was dying, the former Kansas City Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski asked him, “Have you ever asked, ‘Why me?’ »

“No,” he replied. “Why not me?”

Sweeney’s story isn’t quite as amazing and thankfully he’s still with us, but nonetheless, it’s an admirable story. A tenth-round draft pick in 1991, he endured three mediocre seasons splitting his time at receiver. In 1999, however, first baseman Jeff King literally surprised everyone by retiring in mid-May. Suddenly, the Royals needed a first baseman. Sweeney was ready and willing.

He hit .322 with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs. The following year, he set a Royals record with 144 RBIs 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 mark of .333 in 2000 is the second highest non-Brett average. He averaged 4.1 WARS per season from 1999-02, despite being a below average defender.

At a time when the Royals were rudderless, dysfunctional and laughable, Sweeney was a legitimate star. Even more admirably (or crazy), at a time when budding stars love Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damonand Jermaine Dye were dropped left and right because the Royals knew they had no chance of keeping them once they entered free agency, Sweeney opted to return to Kansas City on a five-year extension in 2002 .

Sadly, injuries and fatherly time caught up with him as he only got 5.3 WARS over the span of that contract and never played more than 122 games over that span which caused criticism and frustration from fans. Nonetheless, it continued to show unwavering loyalty to the organization that authored and developed it.

A final argument in favor of a joint retreat is the fact that it has already been done twice. Granted, all four players involved are inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but the Chicago Cubs retired 31st place for both. Greg Maddux and Fergie Jenkinswhile the New York Yankees retired #8 for both Bill Dicky and Yogi Berra.

The case against retirement

There are valid arguments against dropping #29. First, there are arguably several players individually who are more worthy than Sweeney and Quisenberry. Second, the two joint retirements were in the case of players who were good enough to have their number retired individually; they happened to be given the number of another Hall of Famer who played on the same team.

The Royals’ stingy standards for retirement appear to be the biggest hurdle of them 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 why their numbers were retired.

With Sweeney and Quisenberry, the answers aren’t necessarily so clear cut. Being good enough and appreciated is not enough in most cases. If so, then why not Amos Otis, Willie Wilson, Jeff Montgomery, Bret Saberhagen, etc. ? While we’re at it, why not retire Buck O’Neil‘s # 22, although he never played an on-court role with the Royals.

Likewise, each number removed sets a standard for the threshold in the future. Retiring #29 but not some of the other deserving candidates would open the Royals organization to criticism as to why this one but not the others.

Take the Yankees, for example. They rightly removed the number of 14 Hall of Famers, but others who were very good players, but are definitely short of the Hall, like Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte are also in Monument Park. Is it correct? There are Yankees fans who are certainly divided on the issue. No, the Royals are not the Yankees and never will be, but in any case, the slippery slope exists.

Now what?

Almost 15 years after Sweeney last played in a Royals uniform, the No. 29 jersey remains on the rack. There were a handful of Royals acquisitions around this time who wore No 29 elsewhere (Brad Boxberger and Daniel Navain particular), but it is not known if someone asked for #29 and was refused.

Officially, there’s no status on whether Sweeney and Quisenberry’s old number is even in circulation. Among the unretired numbers repeatedly issued, #22 (last worn by Wade Davis in 2013) is the only one that hasn’t been released in the past five seasons. Yes Adrien Beltre (whose #29 is retired by the Texas Rangers) would have shown up somehow and asked for #29, we don’t know if he would have received it or not.

Similarly, 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 retirement number for the Royals, it would probably be Alex Gordon or Salvador Perez. As for #29? Well, the Royals will probably still try to figure it out…

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