These numbers have meaning to us in sports. They give memories. In the scrum of a tackle, it means something to see a certain numbered jersey pop out of the pile. "Of course he made the play," you say to yourself. Or maybe peering across the diamond, it's nice to see a certain guy warming up in the bullpen. "He'll get the save."
That's why we retire jerseys. When we ascribe them to a single player, we want to set them aside. We want a way to say, "This athlete was special. This player gave this number meaning."
Lately I've become conflicted on this. Some numbers will stand forever, but other times, we must ask ourselves where we draw the line. Is there a point total, or a threshold of hits or goals that makes one immortal?
I ask myself these questions in the wake of what an idol of mine has done to protect his number.
Juan Dixon may not have been the most talented basketball player to ever play at Maryland, but he's probably the most memorable. The Terps' all-time leading scorer led the program to its only NCAA championship, a story proudly remembered in news clippings I've kept for years.
Last month, Dixon got caught up in a bit of a media flurry when he said he didn't want new Maryland guard Roddy Peters wearing his old number, 3. It hasn't been officially retired, but his number and Len Bias' No. 34 haven't been touched in years.
Peters set to change that, but not as an insult. He asked Dixon personally if that would be acceptable, and the former college star said OK. It took only a few days before he changed his mind.
Dixon told The Baltimore Sun he had second thoughts after reflecting that his number was "bigger than Juan Dixon the individual." It was about his team, his title, what the program achieved.
Sure, that may be true. But we don't tend to think of sports immortals as reaching down from the rafters where their championship banners are hanging and acting petty.
Records fall and are rewritten. Old champions are replaced by new. Why shouldn't jersey numbers be the same? Isn't there a point where we start running out of numbers and either add another digit or decide to make choices about who was truly great and deserving of that honor?
I take it back: I'm not conflicted. We shouldn't retire numbers. All of them should be in play.
Because in the end, the jerseys don't give the context the memories do. And we can clap for the new faces that wear the old, familiar numbers, while stirring that bit of nostalgia, the reliving of what once was, and the hope of what might be.