Fernando's 34 is being retired! Who's next?
Long overdue honor for Valenzuela will also leave Dodger fans hungry for more
I’ve told this story elsewhere, but I’m going to tell it again here.
While I worked for the Dodgers, Fernando Valenzuela learned who I was. Yep, astonishing. We dedicated our 2015 yearbook to Valenzuela with the cover and main story, a 20-page interview of his entire life. Valenzuela sat in my office while I savored the hourlong, one-on-one conversation. And he didn’t forget. From that day on, he always said hi to me wherever he saw me. I don’t think I can overstate how good that made me feel.
One day, toward the end of my time there, Fernando saw me, said hi and said, “You’re always smiling.” And I replied, “Because you’re … you.” He laughed. On my last weekend working for the Dodgers, at the 2017 FanFest, I got the picture below, which I absolutely cherish.
There isn’t enough time in a single day for me to go through Valenzuela’s entire career, though I’d be happy to have you read my multi-day effort in Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw (insert forced serial comma here) and the Dodgers’ Extraordinary Pitching Tradition. In a way, however, I feel my three-paragraph captures the entire story:
It has been 45 years since the Dodgers made an exception to their policy of only retiring the jersey numbers of Hall of Famers, when in the throes of grief, they honored Jim Gilliam’s No. 19 after his sudden death during the 1978 World Series, nine days shy of his 50th birthday, In between, Gil Hodges became the 11th number retiree last summer to accompany his belated 2022 journey to Cooperstown. And now Fernando, whose prodigious workload early in his career forestalled him putting up the late-career numbers to make the Hall, will make it a dozen, joining Gilliam as an exception to the rule.
So many have hungered for this moment, and few would dispute its worthiness. On a practical level, the Dodgers haven’t given any player No. 34 since Valenzuela, so all that was missing was the official blessing.
At the same time, this opens a floodgate or two. However special the circumstances, no longer can the Dodgers hide from a clamor for other candidates. These would almost certainly be the top four:
6 Steve Garvey (last worn by Trea Turner)
30 Maury Wills (currently worn by Dave Roberts)
36 Don Newcombe (last worn by Adam Liberatore)
55 Orel Hershiser (last worn by Albert Pujols)
The 3-Dog, Willie Davis, who was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ all-time hit leader, belongs on that list, but any observer can tell he doesn’t capture the popular imagination like the quartet above. I’m not even sure he would come in ahead of the remainder of the Dodgers’ famous 1970s infield — Ron Cey (10, later worn by modern hero Justin Turner), Bill Russell (18) or Davey Lopes (15).
Tommy John (25) might yet make it to the Hall of Fame. He spent more years with the Yankees than the Dodgers, but because his comeback from the groundbreaking surgery bearing his name took place in Los Angeles, it’s possible the Dodgers might elevate him. Clayton Kershaw (22), of course, will make it on his own.
(If you’re asking me, the Dodgers’ retired numbers aren’t complete without R.J. Reynolds’ 23 and Pedro Astacio’s 54. If you know, you know.)
But if you draw the line at the first four plus Kershaw, Dodger Stadium will hardly collapse under the weight of the circular plaques. If you consider 99 numbers available (though I will never rule out a Big Blue Wrecking Crew 102), retiring 17 of them doesn’t bust the system. Even if we’re lucky enough for Kershaw contemporaries like Julio Urías (7), Will Smith (16) or Walker Buehler (21) to pitch long and well enough to qualify, that still leaves about 80 percent of numbers available.1
The Dodgers have already waited too long. Newcombe died in 2019, Wills in 2022. But it would still matter to put their numbers into the heavens as signposts for newer generations, with the only complication being that with as little as one more World Series title and another 1,300 wins, the 50-year-old Roberts could make it to the Hall of Fame on his own.
Regardless of any future considerations, Fernando Valenzuela deserved to have No. 34 retired. If that opens the door for more, so much the merrier.
A few shorter Dodger/baseball items follow …