Dee Gordon and the Redemption of #9

When the Dodgers came up in the top of the first inning last night, leading off was a skinny left-handed African-American batter wearing #9. He was so slight that he looked more like the batboy than a real member of the team, and the #9 he was wearing on his jersey seemingly covered his entire back. He’s not expected to add any power whatsoever, but the hope is that his electricity on the basepaths and at the top of the order can really jumpstart a stagnant offense, along with the idea that his speed and athleticism can help make up for some glaring defensive shortcomings.

If, for just a second, seeing the #9 stride to the plate on that package gave you a terrifying flashback that you’d somehow returned to the Juan Pierre era, well, you’re not quite alone. Fortunately for the 9, Dee Gordon is a far better prospect than Pierre ever was (playing shortstop and not being handed a foolish $44m contract helps), and the three hits and a steal in his starting debut last night gave us all hope that we could be seeing the number in a positive light into the next decade.

This all comes none too soon for the 9. Despite never being a number which was historically identified with any particular Dodger like the 4, 32, or 42, over the last 80 years the 9 has seen more than its share of success. It’s been worn (briefly) by two Hall of Famers, by several short-term Dodgers who nonetheless were very productive in the blue, and it was there at a pivotal moment in baseball history. But over the last decade, the number has fallen into disrepair, worn by a variety of overpaid, underperforming players – most of whom I’d prefer to forget ever were Dodgers in the first place. Not to put too much pressure on the young Gordon after just one start, but he’s got a chance to change that.

As best I can tell, #9 was first worn by Danny Taylor in 1932 after he was purchased from the Cubs on May 6. Taylor had a 142 OPS+ in that first year, and finished his five year Dodger career with a solid line of .300/.378/.456. After a brief, unimportant stint with Tom Winsett in 1936, Babe Phelps picked it up from 1937-1941, seasons in which he made three All-Star teams and had a Dodger line of .315/.368/.477. After Phelps, the number suffered through a tough time during the war, being worn by a succession of short-timers not worth mentioning, along with Tommy Brown (at 16!) and Lloyd Waner (at the tail end of his Hall of Fame career). Hall of Famer Arky Vaughn then wore it for the final two seasons of his career in 1946 and ’47, years in which he combined for a .401 OBP.

After Vaughn, it was once again passed around – who can forget Dick Teed striking out in his lone MLB plate appearance in 1953? – before being picked up by Gino Cimoli in 1956. That’s notable because Cimoli, who passed away earlier this year, wore it when he was the first batter to step to the plate on the West Coast after the move from Brooklyn in 1958. Following the season, Cimoli was traded to St. Louis for the man who would take not only his roster spot but his number, Wally Moon. Moon pushed the number into the spotlight, wearing it for parts of seven seasons, winning two World Series rings and finishing 4th in the 1959 MVP balloting.

Moon and his terrifying unibrow were gone after 1965, and the 9 went for three years to Al Ferrara and his 119 Dodger OPS+. Next, Andy Kosco wore it for parts of two seasons, collecting 27 homers. After Kosco moved on, the number went unworn for much of the 1970s, save for a few sparse appearances here and there. In 1983, highly-touted prospect Greg Brock gave it a home for the next four seasons. Brock was coming off a 44 homer 1982 in Albuquerque, and he never quite reached the heights expected of him in Los Angeles, though he provided value with 71 homers and a 108 OPS+ before being traded to Milwaukee after the 1986 season. For the next four seasons, it lived on the back of Mickey Hatcher, who had returned from Minnesota early in 1987. Hatcher departed after 1990, and the number lay unused by active players until Todd Hundley wore it in 1999-2000, two years in which he combined for 48 homers and a 111 OPS+. Marquis Grissom picked it up for the next two seasons, one lousy (2001′s .654 OPS) and one excellent (2002′s .831).

But after Grissom’s nice 2002, everything started to go downhill for the 9. Hundley briefly wore it again in his short 2003 return, hitting just .182 to end his career. No one wore it on the 2004 playoff team, and then Jason Phillips and his .287 OBP wore it for one season on the dreadful 2005 club, driving him out of town. The next season, manager Grady Little picked it up. Grady Little doesn’t have an OPS. Grady Little did wear #9. It didn’t end well.

It would get worse. Juan Pierre was signed before 2007, and traded Little a motorcycle for the number. We will not relive the entire Pierre era here, because I care about you. Let’s just say, the most #9 was seen in those years was on the back of a jersey flying down to first in a futile effort to beat out a weak grounder to the right side. But even that wasn’t the bottom of the barrel. With Pierre off to Chicago in the winter of 2009, Garret Anderson came in, despite mountains of evidence displaying that he was past his prime. Though he wore #00 throughout the spring, an appropriate choice based on what our expectations were of him, he switched to #9 when he made the team. (A.J. Ellis had been wearing the number that spring, but never did in a regular game.)

Anderson, as you may remember, challenged historical records for futility before finally getting cut loose in August. After such a horrendous decade, you might think that they’d set the jersey aside out of compassion, but no: Russ Mitchell arrived to hit .143 in 43 plate appearances to finish out the season. Even to start this season, the curse hadn’t ended, as Hector Gimenez – who I must admit I had completely forgotten existed until just now – managed a single in seven plate appearances before heading off for knee surgery.

As you can see, the 9 has suffered through a pretty tough stretch of late, bad enough that even Grissom actually looks good right now. Amongst the many reasons to cheer for Gordon, bringing a positive connotation to the 9 after what it’s seen recently is just one more.

(All of this information came from the excellent baseball-reference, though they do not list coaches numbers, so it’s possible that the 9 was worn by non-players in the dormant period of the 70s and 90s.)