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04/16/08 12:10 AM EST

Hawkins gives up No. 21 for No. 22

Yanks reliever criticized for wearing O'Neill's number

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tired of receiving flak for wearing a number last used by Paul O'Neill, the Yankees' LaTroy Hawkins has decided to surrender his No. 21 before the club opens a two-game series against the Red Sox on Wednesday.

The right-hander declined comment after the Yankees' 5-3 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, but Yankees director of media relations Jason Zillo confirmed the change. Hawkins' decision was first reported by CBSSports.com.

Hawkins wore No. 22 with the Yankees during Spring Training, but switched to No. 21 when infielder Morgan Ensberg decided he no longer wanted to wear it. Ensberg was randomly assigned the number upon reporting to camp as a non-roster invitee and later revealed that he received numerous vulgar comments from Yankees fans during the Grapefruit League campaign.

Hawkins eagerly accepted No. 21 as a tribute to Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente but quickly learned that a pinstriped No. 21 has other meanings for Yankees fans. Unaware he was donning a number that had not been worn since O'Neill retired following the 2001 World Series, Hawkins was booed when introduced on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Fans chanted "Paul O'Neill" during one of his appearances in the Bronx.

According to CBSSports.com, Hawkins made the decision after discussions with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and other Yankees veterans, who told Hawkins that the number is not worth the headache it's causing.

"I figure if it's important enough for Jeter and Mariano and some other veterans to ask me about it, it's not worth it to keep wearing the number," Hawkins told the Web site.

Hawkins will wear No. 22, last worn by Roger Clemens, when the Yankees take the field on Wednesday. He had said that he would be interested in wearing No. 42 on Tuesday as a tribute to Jackie Robinson, but declined to change his number for the game against the Rays. Hawkins, who is African-American, wore No. 42 last year for the Rockies, the lone player wearing that number for Colorado.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.