Jersey Wars: It’s all a numbers game

River Cats fans see a lot of baseball players come through Raley Field each year.

With so many new faces at the ballpark, many fans use the players’ numbers to identify them on the field. Last season, River Cats fans saw a lot of play from catchers Anthony Recker and Josh Donaldson. However, like the players, fans will have to get used to new numbers in 2011.

Donaldson, who wore No. 20 last season in Sacramento, was a Pacific Coast League Mid-Season All-Star, hitting 18 home runs with 67 RBIs in 86 games. Recker, who wore No. 45 last season, batted .288 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs over 80 games. Those numbers included an outstanding finish to the season, where he had 20 runs, 20 RBIs and batted .389 in August and September, helping the River Cats to their ninth division title.

However, in baseball, no amount of success can protect a prospect from having his jersey number taken by a seasoned veteran.

Insert right-handed pitcher Vinnie Chulk and Manager Darren Bush. Chulk now sports Recker’s No. 45 jersey while Bush is wearing Donaldson’s No. 20. Recker is now in No. 32 while Donaldson wears No. 29.

Numbers have always been a huge part of sports. Each year, at some arena or stadium across America, an athlete gets their jersey number put into the rafters. Many athletes change their jersey number hoping to redefine their image or career. Some have gone as far as changing their legal name to represent their on-field digits – exhibit A, NFL wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco.

Anthony “Cuatro Cinco” has a nice ring to it, but Recker doesn’t believe it should come to that.

“Vinnie Chulk came in, big leagued me and took my number,” said Recker, in his third season with Sacramento. “Didn’t give me anything for it, just came in and stole it real sneaky like. I wasn’t too happy about it. I did tell him that he owed me something but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The 32-year-old Chulk, who was signed in December, wore No. 45 jersey in college but was never able to keep it for an extended period of time in the pros. He logged Major League time from 2003 to 2009, playing in Toronto, San Francisco and Cleveland. In that time, Chulk struck out 189 batters with a 4.33 ERA.

Vinnie Chulk, left, took Anthony Recker's number in 2011. (Sara Molina)

“I’ve been wearing it (45) since college, so going through different organizations and all that I couldn’t get it because either a certain big leaguer had it or what have you,” Chulk said. “So this year when I came in, I finally had a chance to get 45. I basically took it not knowing at first and then (Recker) called me a jersey thief. I was kind of hurt by it, but at the same time he’s a lot younger than I am so I figured I’d take it from him and see if the new number will make something happen for his career.”

It gets more complicated when the person wearing your jersey is your team’s new skipper.

“I was No. 20 when I was here last year and had a decent year with it,” Donaldson said. “I came back and Bush, our manager, just swiped my jersey without anybody saying anything to me about it. I tried to buy it off of him but he didn’t come up with anything. I told him to watch out because I know a few people.”

The River Cats’ new manager has made it obvious that he’s not worried about Donaldson’s people, laughing off his request of a money-for-jersey transaction. So neither the fans nor Donaldson should expect a number change in Sacramento anytime soon.

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