Wearing Jackie's No. 42 an honor to Mo
Along with other 29 clubs, Yanks pay tribute on Robinson Day
NEW YORK -- Mariano Rivera never asked to wear No. 42. He was just a rookie, and single-digit numbers were normally reserved for Yankees legends -- of course, in 1995, nobody thought the skinny starting pitcher would become arguably the best closer in history -- so he just took whatever number was given to him.
As it turned out, Rivera was given the most important number in baseball, and he would eventually become the final player to wear it.
"God's plan," the religious right-hander said, with Christian music blaring from the small television in his locker.
On this day, and on this day only for the past five seasons, Rivera wasn't alone.
For the 64th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier -- April 15, 1947 -- and the eighth annual Jackie Robinson Day, players all around baseball wore Robinson's historic No. 42 on Friday to commemorate the man who changed baseball and played a crucial role in civil rights.
"I think we've come a long way," said Rangers skipper Ron Washington, one of two African-American managers in the game, along with the Reds' Dusty Baker. "It's amazing that everyone in baseball is wearing one number that's the only number in all of baseball that's retired throughout baseball."
Prior to Friday's contest against the Rangers at Yankee Stadium, Jackie Robinson's wife, Rachel, and daughter, Sharon, were introduced on the field, along with members of the Tuskegee Airmen and winners of the "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life" essay contest.
Then, out came Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson, one of baseball's finest African-American players.
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Out came Robinson Cano, who was named after Jackie and happens to rake on Jackie Robinson Day, having gone 6-for-18 with three homers, six RBIs and five runs scored in five games entering Friday.
And out came Rivera, the last member standing with No. 42 by mere happenstance.
"It's awesome to get a chance to be represented and represent what he stood for and has allowed us to do, not only as a baseball player but as a person in general," Granderson said. "After he finished playing, his continued effort in the civil rights movement along with many others to get us the things that we can do today, it's definitely an honor and a privilege."
In 1997, Major League Baseball opted to retire Robinson's No. 42 league-wide, though those with that number already could continue to wear it. Rivera is the last of those players still in the game.
Then, in 2004, the league decided to commemorate the date Robinson broke the color barrier with Jackie Robinson Day on April 15. Finally, in 2007, after Ken Griffey Jr. asked to wear No. 42 just for Jackie Robinson Day, MLB decided to let everybody don the historic number -- just for one day.
"As Commissioner [Bud] Selig has said, the day that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier is the most special day in Major League Baseball's history and a great day in this country's history," said Tom Brasuell, MLB's vice president of community affairs. "So we are glad to continue to celebrate and recognize the achievements and legacy of Jackie Robinson."
Jackie Robinson Day was celebrated all over the country on Friday, but it was perhaps extra special in New York City -- where Robinson spent all 10 Major League seasons of his eventual Hall of Fame career with the since-moved Dodgers.
None of those who played on Friday, of course, were alive or even came close to watching Robinson play when he made history. Some know a lot more about his story and can appreciate his impact more than others.
But everyone was in some way affected.
"I think it's a societal issue," Rangers designated hitter Michael Young said. "Jackie Robinson's contributions were far beyond the baseball field. Obviously, this is where it started, but I think everybody in American society owes a huge debt of gratitude to the contributions Jackie Robinson made."
It wasn't just Robinson's emergence into the league, but it was his stardom -- he won the first Rookie of the Year Award, was named Most Valuable Player two years later and hit .311 -- and his character through discrimination and hatred that built a lasting legacy.
And it wasn't only African Americans who were affected. Current players from the Far East and -- like Rivera -- Latin America can thank Robinson, too.
They got their chance on Friday.
"It's a privilege," Rivera said, "an honor to wear No. 42. Especially because of what Jackie represents for us."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.