- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

The numbers racket is awfully lucrative in sports these days. Why, Redskins newcomer Clinton Portis just paid a reported $45,000 to pry No.26 away from Ifeanyi Ohalete. In Cleveland, meanwhile, first-round pick Kellen Winslow Jr. is said to have offered Aaron Shea $25,000 to $35,000 for his No.80 Browns jersey. Negotiations are continuing.

Given the market conditions, the Arizona Cardinals’ Duane Starks almost looks like a sap for surrendering No.22 — out of the goodness of his heart — to Emmitt Smith last season. After all, Starks probably could have shaken Emmitt down for a Range Rover or something. But out of deference to the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, he voluntarily switched to No.28 instead.

It’s not just happening in football, either. In recent years, we’ve seen Vin Baker shell out $10,000 for the Celtics’ No.42, Roger Clemens trade a $15,000 Rolex for the Blue Jays’ No.21 and Rickey Henderson cough up $25,000 for the Jays’ No.24. And they’re the lucky ones, the players who had a teammate willing to strike a deal.

Chuck Smith wasn’t so fortunate. When the sack specialist signed a big free agent contract with the Panthers a few seasons ago, he couldn’t coerce Tim Morabito to give him the jersey off his back — No.90.

“I told Tim I would fill up his house with furniture, and I’d pick him up every day if he gives it up,” he told the Gaston (S.C.) Gazette. “But the worst thing that happened this year is that Tim got that extra money [a three-year, $5 million contract], and now he doesn’t need that extra couple thousand dollars.”

Smith settled for No.91, but it felt like a hair shirt to him. “This just isn’t a swift-looking number on me,” he said. Apparently not. He tore up his knee that first season (2000) and played just two games with the club before being forced into retirement.

Oh, for the days of yore, when numbers weren’t quite so big a deal. I always loved Red Grange’s explanation of how he wound up with his famous No.77: “The guy in front of me [at the University of Michigan] got 76; the guy in back got 78.”

In the 1920s, the NFL had a team, the Orange Tornadoes, that wore letters rather than numbers. Guard Ernie Cuneo was F. Back Johnny Tomaini was X (probably because his last name sounded like ptomaine). Until 1929, when the Yankees began issuing them, baseball teams didn’t even bother with numbers. All a player had to worry about was getting a uniform that fit — be it large, extra large or Bambino-sized.

It wasn’t long, though, before players started becoming attached to their numbers, if not identified with them. “Crazylegs” Hirsch, for instance, wore No.40 during his All-America days at Wisconsin, but he had to opt for No.80 his first few years in pro football because the 40s were reserved for tackles. Undaunted, he had an equipment man sew No.40 on the inside of his jersey. “Not that I was superstitious or anything,” he said.

In recent years, particularly in football, there’s actually been a Numbers Shortage. As rosters have grown larger (from 33 to 53 in the NFL in the last 50 years) and the list of retired numbers has grown longer, clubs have found themselves running out, especially in training camp when 80-plus players need to be suited up. Sometimes you’ll even see offensive and defensive guys wearing the same number (though different colored jerseys).

In baseball, nobody on any team can wear No.42 (Jackie Robinson’s number) anymore. It’s been taken out of circulation by the commissioner’s office. In basketball, the Celtics have hoisted so many numbers to the rafters that they might eventually have to go the Orange Tornadoes route and assign letters of the alphabet. The upshot of all this is that the price of numbers has escalated exponentially. (Supply and demand, baby!) And players, with money to burn, have been more than willing to meet that price — even if it involves, according to Portis, the use of his house to “have a couple of house parties.”

(Heck, when the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas was worried about being denied No.0 last season — Brendan Haywood had already staked out No.00 — he talked of offering to “give [Haywood] the ball a little bit more, give him 20 touches a game.” He was joking … I think.)

On the other side of the world, they aren’t quite so crazed about numbers. David Beckham, the most famous No.7 since Mickey Mantle, found that number already taken on his new club, Real Madrid. The team, however, wasn’t terribly sympathetic to his plight, nor was it receptive to the idea of him wearing No.77 (or some other vanity plate).

“Beckham will follow the norms at Real Madrid and wear a free number between one and 25,” sporting director Jorge Valdano said. And that was that. (David decided on No.23.)

In the Colonies, though, players don’t feel whole, don’t “feel like Superman,” as Portis put it, unless they’re wearing their number. Just wondering: Does all this payola Ohalete received have any effect on another number — his salary cap number?

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