When Yankees closer Mariano Rivera retired at the end of last season, it marked the exit of the final player to wear number 42, which Major League Baseball retired in 1997 in honor of Jackie Robinson.
The only player to be the last to wear 42 for existing and defunct teams? Hint: He resembles a well-known, animated cowboy.
That would be Kirk Rueter, the left-hander and fan favorite known as “Woody” for much of his 10 seasons with the Giants, who begin a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at AT&T Park Tuesday on Jackie Robinson Day.
Rueter was the last to wear No. 42 for the Montreal Expos – who became the Washington Nationals in 2005 – and in San Francisco, where he was given the number upon arriving via midseason trade in 1996.
(Four other players were the last to wear No. 42 on multiple teams, according to baseball-reference.com, including Mo Vaughn, who was the only one to do so for three teams – Red Sox, Angels and Mets – and who retired after the 2003 season.)
Rueter said he likely didn’t even notice the number on the back of the jersey when the Expos called him up as a 22-year-old in 1993.
“I was so nervous,” he said.
Rueter figures longtime clubhouse manager Mike Murphy gave him 42 initially because that’s what the pitcher had worn in Montreal.
When MLB retired No. 42 in 1997, marking the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking the color barrier, active wearers were given the choice of keeping the number or not. For Rueter, it was an easy decision.
“I was honored to be the last Giant, I mean obviously to wear it with all Jackie Robinson stood for and what he paved the way for and accomplished,” Rueter, 43, said on the phone Sunday. “It meant more to me to give it up and have it retired and nobody else as a Giant wear it than for me to keep wearing it.”
When the Giants retired Robinson’s number at Candlestick Park, Rueter said, “Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were there that day, so I got them to sign” his own No. 42 jersey. It now hangs in a shed at his Nashville, Ill., home, next to his No. 42 Expos jersey.
Rueter, who retired after the 2005 season with the most wins (105) of any left-hander in San Francisco Giants history, said he still follows the Giants closely while staying busy looking after his two daughters and doing some coaching as a volunteer assistant at nearby McKendree University, a Division II bprogram where his nephew plays.
He still counts among the biggest starts of his career his Sept. 17, 1997, outing against the Dodgers. Barry Bonds hit a two-run homer off Chan Ho Park in the first inning – doing a pirouette out of the box on his way to first – as Rueter pitched seven innings in a 2-1 win. The Giants won in 12 innings the next day on Brian Johnson’s walk-off homer to pull even with the Dodgers atop the National League West en route to the division title.
Rueter said it’s “good for baseball” when the two teams play meaningful games, and the rivalry seems strong. The Giants have won two of the last four World Series; the Dodgers have assembled a talent-laden roster with the league’s highest payroll and last year reached the National League Championship Series. They’ve already met in one series this season, with the Giants taking two of three at Dodger Stadium.
“I think both teams have a definite chance to be playing in October, so that just kind of amps everything up a little bit more,” Rueter said. “I think it’s great for the fans, and I think the players enjoy it more when both teams are good – so when you beat them, it feels a little better.”
In May, Rueter is scheduled to represent the Giants in Cooperstown, N.Y., at the “Hall of Fame Classic,” an exhibition game featuring recently retired players from all 30 teams. He said he was “more than happy to do it” when the Giants called – then he realized it meant he might actually have to pitch again.
“I’m going to go out there and hopefully get maybe one out, if I can get my arm above my head to throw anymore,” Rueter said.
He told the McKendree staff about the game.
“So they’re going to let me throw BP here once it gets closer to the end of May, so I at least remember how to get it from the pitcher’s mound to the plate,” Rueter said.
As for a return to San Francisco, Rueter said his family is planning a trip for the end of June – to coincide with Pixar Day at AT&T Park. The left-hander has always embraced being likened to Woody, the main character in that studio’s “Toy Story” trilogy.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Rueter said. “(TV broadcaster Mike) Krukow made it stick.”