I wrote at the time that Albert Pujols signed with Anaheim that I thought the Cardinals should not reserve Albert's former number five.
And the issue has done nothing but gain intensity as time has passed. Half of Cardinals Nation seems to think we should perpetually carry a torch for a guy who contractually can't have anything to do with us for at least two decades. The other half seems to think that number five should be given to the last guy on the roster as a personal statement towards Pujols.
I think both views are understandable -- but impractical. It would seem especially harsh for owners to give Pujols number away out of spite. And why would they want to turn the tide of public sentiment, which is decidedly in their favor? On the other hand, what player would want to wear five for the St. Louis Cardinals any time in the near future? People here flipped out when JD Drew switched from number seven to number eight out because he must have thought he was the second coming of Mickey Mantle to wear that number!
But... I think we need to step back and look at the way the Cardinals decide to retire numbers. In the past, the current regime of Redbirds ownership used admission into the Baseball Hall of Fame as the key event leading to number retirement. But that's not the spirit in which the practice was invented.
The first major league player to have his number retired was Yankees legend Lou Gehrig.
The Iron Horse was forced to retire suddenly from baseball because of the disease that eventually claimed his life. The Yankees retired Gehrig's number four with the idea that, although he couldn't take the field anymore, Gehrig would officially always be a part of the team. In essence, no one would be allowed to fill his shoes.
It's hard for me to imagine the Cardinals reserving Pujols' number so he would effectively always be a part of the team when he chose not to be a part of the team any longer.
If the Cardinals hold back number five for 20 years until Pujols' service with the Angels is up -- or 15 until he is elected to the Hall of Fame -- it will be as awkward as when the team retired number nine in honor of Enos Slaughter. Although he was all Hall of Famer, I suspect that the Birds' retirement of number nine doesn't make that number the permanent representation of him in Cardinals fans' minds. Roger Maris, Joe Torre and Terry Pendleton all wore number nine with great distinction long after Slaughter retired to North Carolina.
The second reason that numbers were retired was because players suffered an untimely death. The Blues retired number three for Bob Gassoff, a 24-year-old defenseman who was killed in a motorcycle accident while playing with the team. He's no Hall of Famer -- in fact, although he was popular at the time because of his fighting skills, I doubt most Blues fans today have any idea who he was. But members of the team at the time decided they wanted to put aside Gasoff's number as a way to remember him.
In that case, I could see the Cardinals permanently putting away Darryl Kile's 57 before they took Pujols' number out of the rotation. Being that Gassoff had been drinking when he rode a motorcycle into oncoming traffic, his case is more comparable to that for permanently retiring Josh Hancock's number than Pujols'.
I think someday the Birds are going to have to put the number five on someone else's back. But I think they need to find the right person who is capable of carrying a number of that weight. More likely a free agent star than a young player who will have great expectations heaped upon them.