As Michael Roth walked off the mound at TD Ameritrade Park in the championship series of the College World Series last summer after throwing the final pitch of his college career, followers of the South Carolina baseball program knew they would never see anyone quite like No. 29 again.
The ace left-hander departed Omaha as the greatest pitcher in CWS history and arguably USCs storied history as well while leaving behind the question of whether any Gamecock baseball player should ever wear his number again.
But theres one hitch.
The USC baseball team has never retired a jersey number despite a 40-year record of being the most successful program on campus. The football team and two basketball teams have combined to retire 11 numbers, including some of the schools most beloved athletes such as John Roche, George Rogers and Sheila Foster.
Yet, not one baseball number has been taken out of circulation, despite 28 NCAA tournament appearances, 11 CWS appearances, two national championships, nearly 40 All-American players, two national player-of-the-year honorees, a multiple winner of the national coach of the year award, and two CWS Most Outstanding Players.
That could change if new coach Chad Holbrook has any say. Holbrook took over the program this summer when his boss, Ray Tanner, moved into the athletics directors chair after 16 seasons guiding the Gamecocks, a period that included the back-to-back national titles.
We need to take a long, hard look at retiring a few of the players jerseys, and if not retiring them then honoring them in some capacity around Carolina Stadium, Holbrook said. That would be great for so many people who have been Gamecock fans for 30 or 40 or 50 years. There have been a lot of great players come through here. It would be a nice touch to honor them.
Holbrook weighed in on the topic at his opening press conference. And when fall practice began, he didnt hand out No. 29 to a new player. If it were just up to him, that number would not end up on any the back of any USC baseball player again.
Do I have an opinion about Michael Roth? Yeah, I do. I dont think anyone should wear No. 29 not only for what he did on the field but for what he did in the community and in the classroom, Holbrook said. I dont know if well ever have another Michael Roth. He gets my vote, thats for sure.
For his part, Roth, the starting pitcher in both of USCs national championship-clinching games, modestly refrains from comment on whether his number should go up on a wall at Carolina Stadium.
My experiences over four years at South Carolina have been priceless, irreplaceable, unbelievable. I couldnt have asked for a better college experience or a better athletic experience, said Roth, who went 26-6 with a 1.91 ERA. So to be even considered for my number to be retired, and also for Coach Holbrook to do what hes doing by withholding my number this year, its a great honor. I dont take it lightly.
Holbrook would like to get things started with Tanners former number also leaving circulation.
I think No. 1 needs to be retired, Holbrook said. I dont think theres any question about that.
But its not as simple as deciding which numbers should be retired. A policy for retiring jerseys was put in place by the USC athletics department in 2001 in order to formalize the process and bring consistency to the credentials required for the honor across all sports. If those guidelines are followed to the letter and they arent amended in any fashion then Roths number could not be officially retired for five years.
The policy also does not address the possibility of retiring the number of a coach because coaches in most sports dont wear uniforms. Not only could there be a case made for Tanner, but also Bobby Richardson (No. 7), who started the programs modern era in 1970 and took the 1975 team to the first CWS in school history, and June Raines (No. 16), who won the most games in program history (763) during his 20 seasons (1977-96), which included four CWS trips.
Although Tanner didnt want to weigh in on whether he deserves the honor, he remains open to the idea of doing something that has yet to be done in baseball.
We should look into it, said Tanner, who wore No. 11 for five seasons before switching to No. 1 at the start of the 2002 season. Going back to the tradition of coach Richardson and coach Raines, a lot of great players have come and gone. Its probably time that we look at retiring some jerseys.
While the policy states that jerseys of the players would be retired but their corresponding numbers would not necessarily be taken out of circulation, it does keep previously-retired numbers in the other sports on the never-to-be-worn list unless the honored athlete allows its use again. But its clear that Holbrook believes in the case of Roth and Tanner that the numbers should never be worn again.
The guidelines in place have a high threshold to retire a jersey, but the baseball programs success puts a lot of players into the pool for consideration. There are pitchers such as Earl Bass, Randy Martz, Mike Cook, Kip Bouknight and Matt Price, as well as Roth. There are first basemen such as Hank Small, Justin Smoak and Christian Walker. There is catcher Landon Powell, second baseman Scott Wingo and shortstop Drew Meyer. And, there are outfielders such as Mookie Wilson, Mac White and Jackie Bradley.
Even the programs greatest players say this honor should be reserved only for the elite. Bouknight, who wore No. 14 while compiling the most wins, innings pitched and strikeouts in school history, wouldnt want to see too many numbers retired, but he would like to see USCs top players recognized.
It would be great for the university, Bouknight said. It would be a great time to honor folks from several decades in the past that have done a wonderful job for South Carolina and the baseball program.
With so many All-American players over the years, sorting through them to pick out the best of the best would not be easy. A number of them bring extraordinary credentials to the discussion.
Bouknight and Martz both won the national player of the year award Bouknight in 2000 and Martz in 1977. Bradley, an electrifying presence in center field, and Wingo, the defensive wizard turned Gamecock folk hero, both won the CWS MOP award in the back-to-back championship seasons of 2010 and 2011.
Bass set certain standards he was a nearly unbeatable presence on the mound (34-3) under Richardson in the early 1970s that still resonate with older players and fans who call him the schools best pitcher. Price, the greatest closer in the programs history, set the career record for appearances and saves, and he finished both national title-clinching victories.
Smoak (2006-08) and Small (1972-75) are the top home-run hitters, although they hit in vastly different eras, Smoak in a hitter-friendly one and Small in a pitcher-friendly one. Walker was the teams best hitter over a three-year stretch that ended with a trio of trips to the CWS championship finals.
And players such as White (1991-94), Powell (2001-04) and Meyer (2000-02) still find themselves near the top of many career offensive categories. Some played in the program just one season, like the 1977 duo of Martz and Wilson, who did amazing things to get a surprise team to the CWS championship game in Raines first season.
The most interesting aspect of honoring players may be that some of them wore the same number over the years. Small and Smoak wore No. 12. Bass and Walker wore No. 13. Richardson and Meyer wore No. 7. Wilson and Wingo wore No. 8.
Richardson, who wore No. 1 in his New York Yankees career, points to his former MLB team as an example of numbers being taken out of circulation with no real ramifications. The Yankees have retired 15 numbers, including many of the single-digit ones. As the man who got South Carolinas successful run in college baseball started, he would love to see something similar begin to take place at Carolina Stadium.
I think its a wonderful thing, Richardson said. I realize you lose some of those numbers, but this would be good recognition that brings back the names of those players that folks would remember during those eras.