Someone in the Twins organization made a grave mistake.
The Twins claimed Detroit outfielder Clete Thomas off waivers Saturday. That in itself was not a mistake, but whoever assigns jersey numbers to the players callously decided to award Thomas number 36. Most Twins fans know that number as the one that was on Joe Nathan‘s back for the last eight seasons, but regular readers of Puckett’s Pond will probably recognize a deeper significance to 36.
Left-hander Jim Kaat wore that number for Minnesota from 1961 through 1973. He won a Twins record 189 games and 12 Gold Gloves while wearing that number. He also appeared in two All Star games and went toe to toe with Sandy Koufax three times in the 1965 World Series with a 36 on his shirt. But even though Kaat came within two votes of being elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame this winter, the Twins have not retired his number. This has become a cause celebre for a certain Puckett’s Pond writer with a lot of time on his hands, and that writer will keep complaining about this until the Twins do something about it.
No disrespect is meant to Thomas, of course. Thomas has a respectable line of .256/.336/.391 in parts of three seasons with Detroit. He can more than adequately play all three outfield positions, and he can fill in as a left-handed pinch hitter with moderate power or a speedy pinch runner. Basically, Thomas offers the Twins everything that Ben Revere offers, with the added bonus that the team can now afford to send Revere down to AAA for some regular playing time.
The Twins have had their eye on Thomas for a long time. They drafted him in the fifth round back in 2003, but he chose to attend college instead. After a couple years at Auburn, Thomas’s draft position actually dropped a bit, as the Tigers nabbed him in round six. He showed some versatility in the minors, putting up a line of .267/.348/.399 with 148 stolen bases in parts of seven minor league seasons. He also knocked out 30 doubles in two different seasons and hit 12 homers last year at AAA.
But Clete Thomas is no Jim Kaat.
Kaat started his MLB career at age 20 and stayed in the Majors until he was 44. He was one of the original Minnesota Twins back in 1961, and he suffered through those first few losing seasons along with Minnesota’s fans. He was still there when the team started to contend for pennants, and he was a crucial part of the 1965 team that actually won one. That season he won 18 games and posted a 2.83 ERA. In 1966, he was even better, winning an AL Best 25 games. Kaat was never the best pitcher in baseball, but he was among the top tier starters in the game for a very long time. Much like his teammate Bert Blyleven, Kaat carved out his place in team history by being a dependable workhorse year in and year out. Also like Blyleven, Kaat transitioned to the broadcast booth when his playing days were done, winning over more fans with his likeable on-air personality.
The Twins have given away number six over a dozen times since Kaat left, most notably to Nathan and Kevin Tapani. They need to stop doing so. Jim Kaat is one of the titans of team history, and he deserves the same honor the Twins have given to Blyleven, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Kent Hrbek, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett, and Tom Kelly.
Retire number 36, Twins. It’s the right thing to do.