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Saga of No. 21 begins with respect

Saga of No. 21 begins with respect

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NEW YORK -- Twenty-one is one of those numbers that carries a little extra meaning in the eye of the beholder. It can be blackjack, it's the legal age to buy a beer at Yankee Stadium, and -- for many fans -- it's Paul O'Neill.

Morgan Ensberg felt so uncomfortable wearing No. 21 in Spring Training, shocked at the amount of heat he received, that he abandoned his exhibition digits in favor of No. 11.

Reliever LaTroy Hawkins moved quickly to snap up the number, and he had another reason -- as a tribute to Roberto Clemente.

"I'm a fan of a lot of the guys who have played the game," Hawkins said. "Clemente stands out because of what he stood for and what he died doing. That was pretty impressive. He died the month I was born, and I was born on Dec. 21."

Clemente was killed in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972. The Pirates outfielder had volunteered to help deliver relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua, and his digits were officially retired in Pittsburgh on Opening Day 1973.

For the Yankees, No. 21 was unofficially kept out of circulation after O'Neill's retirement following the 2001 World Series. Ensberg was the first player to wear the number since O'Neill, finding the uniform waiting in his Legends Field locker.

"I think a lot of people come in and think you request a number," Ensberg said. "That was certainly not the case with me. I showed up, and I was No. 21. I [was] a non-roster invitee. There's not too much pull going on there."

That may have been the case, but Ensberg said the perception and reception from Grapefruit League crowds was not particularly receptive to the idea of another No. 21 roaming the Yankees' diamonds in Tampa, Fla.

"The feedback from the fans was: 'That's not your number.' It was unbelievable," Ensberg said. "The gist of it was that it was Paulie's number, and I understood."

Ensberg said he offered fellow infielder Wilson Betemit $5,000 for No. 14, which he has worn since his high school days in Redondo Beach, Calif., but the transaction was rebuffed.

Ensberg would still like to switch to No. 14 if the opportunity arises, but for now, Ensberg has settled upon No. 11, worn by infielder Chris Woodward during Spring Training, and last season by first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.

"I absolutely felt uncomfortable," Ensberg said. "Maybe somebody that is just a different personality could handle it, but for me, it was something out of respect. The No. 21 by itself is fine, but when you put it in the context of the Yankees, now it's almost somebody's name.

"It represents more than a number to a lot of people. I certainly don't want to step in that."

O'Neill, now a commentator with the club's YES Network, obviously left deep tracks during his nine years in New York, playing a pivotal role on the four World Series championship clubs during Joe Torre's era as manager.

But the Yankees felt the need to put the digits back in use, given the number of players in camp and no immediate plans to officially retire No. 21 in O'Neill's honor.

"It's going to be strange, yeah," O'Neill said. "And it'll be especially strange to see it warming up in the bullpen."

Hawkins said that he was unaware the No. 21 was O'Neill's, but he was already familiar with being linked with other recognizable Yankees of years past. Hawkins was issued No. 22 in Spring Training, last worn by Roger Clemens.

"I'm a pitcher," Hawkins said. "I'm a little different. I was uncomfortable wearing No. 22 a little bit, because [Brian] Bruney talked about me so much, calling me 'Roger' the whole spring. They can call me 'Paulie' now if they want."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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