Ryan Thompson and Tyler Rogers Explain Their Weird Jersey Numbers

This season, two sidearm relievers – the Rays’ Ryan Thompson and the Giants’ Tyler Rogers – are leaving hitters dumbstruck with their unusual pitching styles. Besides releasing the ball near their shoe tops, though, Thompson and Rogers have another thing in common.

Both pitchers wear jersey numbers far above what most baseball players would consider traditional. Thompson, who proudly wears No. 81, rocks a number that would fit in better with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than the Rays. Meanwhile, Rogers has been the best pitcher out of the San Francisco bullpen with No. 71 on his back, and says that he likely would have ditched it had he not been so fortunate on the mound.

Thompson and Rogers discussed the process behind getting their numbers, how important they are to them now, and all of the strange experiences that have come from boldly wearing a number that so many others will not.

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Roberson: How on earth did you end up wearing No. 81?

Thompson: “It was my first official big league spring training number. It was just randomly assigned to me. I always thought that was kind of cool. Like, obviously, if you’re a five-year big leaguer you already have your number, but all the non-roster invites and young guys just get what the clubbies assign them. I’m kind of a number guy, so I wondered, ‘Oh, why’d I get this number? Eighty-one?’

“So that year – which was last year – I made my debut with 81. My first big league number was 81 and I had success with it, so let’s keep it rolling. Of course, I get a lot of crap from the guys like, ‘What are you? Our team wide receiver?’ It’s hilarious.

“Anyway, this offseason I got the call, ‘Hey, what number do you want this year?’ I thought about it, and I was like, nah, I want to keep 81. It’s different. Anyone can be 23 or 27, but I feel like I’m a different guy. I throw different, I’ve got different viewpoints than a lot of people, so I like having a different number. The number being as bizarre as it is sort of meshes with my personality.”

Roberson: If you hadn’t had success wearing 81, would you have wanted to change it?

Thompson: “Probably not. When you’re in the minor leagues, the big leagues are always your dream. At the same time, it feels like this far-fetched fantasy. Ever since you’re a kid – and even when you’re in Triple-A – actually getting to the big leagues seems like such a big step, and once you get there every part of your experience in getting there seems like it’s immortalized as who you are. Eighty-one, that was me. I am Ryan Thompson, 81. I’m signing my autographs with 81.”

Roberson: You have no plans to ever change it?

Thompson: “I thought about it. There’s plenty of numbers I could change to that I’ve used in the past. But why? I don’t know how many people have worn 81, but I’m glad I’m not sitting here with 20, as one of hundreds and hundreds of people who have worn 20. I think I’ll probably keep 81 for the rest of my career.

“[Former teammate] John Curtiss and I actually talked about it last year when he was wearing 84. His plan was to keep it for as long as he was a Ray, but I’m not sure what number he is now.”

Roberson: Curtiss is wearing 39 in Miami. Do you feel betrayed by that at all?

Thompson: [Laughs] “I do, I feel like he’s a sellout. I don’t know what he’s doing. He used to be one of the boys. Humble, unique, now he’s just another 39.”

Roberson: That’s exactly right.

Thompson: “I can’t believe it.”

Roberson: Have you ever seen anyone pay a teammate to get a certain number?

Thompson: “Oh yeah, in the minor leagues it happens all the time. In the big leagues I think it’s understood, you have more service time, you get dibs. If you have less service time, tough luck. But in the minor leagues, so many players are superstitious. They have a favorite number, they’ve worn it their whole life, whatever it may be. You see that a lot, actually. Guys will come up and be like, ‘This is my favorite number, can I please have it?’ Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s like a ‘Yeah I don’t care, you can have it’ type thing.”

Roberson: Did you see anything crazy?

Thompson: “Most of the time it was just a civil passing of the jersey, honestly.”

Roberson: I remember that day in Little League, where you’d get your jersey and your number would just be based off whatever one fit the best, so you’d change every year. I guess now that feeling’s gone since it sounds like you’re locked into 81. Would you even be able to wear 81 in the minors? Does it just go up to the 50s and then stop? Could you even specifically ask for a number in the minors?

Thompson: “You could, but it’d be a lot of work for the team. Nobody does that. You’re right. Usually, the lower numbers are the small jerseys then it goes up to around the 50s. I understood that I’d be in the 30s or 40s most of the time based on my size.”

Roberson: You mentioned that players on your own team will give you a hard time for wearing a wide receiver number. Do you ever get it from the fans?

Thompson: “For sure. I didn’t even think about that, but now that you mention it, definitely. [It happens in] every road ballpark. I just got some heckling from the fans like, ‘Nice spring training number!’ It’s usually when I’m warming up.”

Roberson: Do you feel a brotherhood with the other players in the league who wear weird numbers?

Thompson: “One hundred percent, it is a brotherhood. That’s why Curtiss switching up hurts so bad.”

Roberson: You should talk to him about it.

Thompson: “I hope that you talk to him at some point so you can share my viewpoints on him, not just as a player but as a human being.”

Roberson: I’ll try.

[Note: John Curtiss could not be reached for comment]

Roberson: Would you like to guess how many big leaguers have ever worn 81?

Thompson: “I hope it’s as low as possible. I’ll say three.”

Roberson: Not quite. There have been 12 guys who’ve worn it. It’s pretty fascinating, they’re all pretty modern. There was a guy named Lou Lucier, he was the first person to ever wear it, and that was in 1943 for the Red Sox. Then there was a 59-year gap, and no one wore it again until 2002. That was a guy named Ben Diggins on the Brewers.

Thompson: “Wow. How about with the Rays, anybody?”

Roberson: You are the first one.

Thompson: “Yes, trailblazer.”

Roberson: It is mostly pitchers too, for whatever reason.

Thompson: “Position players try to be cool. They have their egos. They think, ‘Oh I have to wear a number that people respect.’ Pitchers are more, ;I’m going to wear this number and you’re going to respect me because of it.’ Position players like to be pampered. We’re just like, ‘Give me 3.14, give me 8 3/4.'”

Roberson: I wonder if Rob Manfred would let you wear -1 or a decimal. Why does it have to be a whole number?

Thompson: “That’d be awesome.”

———

Roberson: What’s the story behind you wearing No. 71?

Rogers: “It was [pause] the number they gave me when I got called up. [Laughs] That’s the story.”

Roberson: Do you have any plans to change it, or are you just going to stick it out as long as you’re having success?

Rogers: “They actually did ask if I wanted to change it. I’ve grown to like the number 71. For years in Triple-A, I wore 17, so 71 is just flipped.”

Roberson: Interesting. Was 17 your favorite number growing up, or was that just the one you got in Triple-A?

Rogers: “It was just a ‘that was the number they gave me’ situation.”

Roberson: Have you always just been that type of person?

Rogers: “Yeah, in college I wore 14. In Double-A, I wore 18 and then 17. So, I guess I like the teen numbers, but I’m not a number guy. I do keep the temperature in my car at 71 now, though.”

Roberson: That’s awesome. So, hypothetically, if you had come up wearing 71 and had a 15.00 ERA, would you have wanted to change it?

Rogers: “If that happened I don’t think they’d even let me wear a jersey. But yes, if there hadn’t been success I would have wanted to change it, for sure.”

Roberson: What are your teammates’ thoughts on 71? It’s kind of an offensive lineman number.

Rogers: “Well, I like to tell them it’s a hockey number.”

Roberson: Anything from the fans? I imagine on the road, fans see it and just go “Hey, 71!” and that’s their whole thing.

Rogers: “That hasn’t happened yet. We’ll see what happens as more and more fans get back into the stadiums.”

Roberson: Oh no, I hope I didn’t accidentally fuel the fire. I certainly don’t want to give the fans a reason to make fun of you.

Rogers: “Oh, they have plenty of material. I throw underhand.”

Roberson: Ryan Thompson, another sidearm guy, told me that he decided since he throws weird, he wanted to stick with his weird number. Has that ever crossed your mind? Do you think if you threw overhand you’d be wearing a normal number?

Rogers: “I think he’s so right about that. The way he and I throw, it kind of just works. The odd number, the odd delivery, it all just goes together.”

Roberson: Is there anyone else on the Giants with a weird number that you feel a connection with?

Rogers: “I like to give Logan Webb a hard time about his number, 62.”

Roberson: That’s like right on the cusp, though, of things getting truly weird.

Rogers: “I know. He’s weird. He says he’d like any other number in the 60s besides 62. I don’t know. I think it’s growing on him as well.”

Roberson: Right, I can’t imagine there are many kids in Little League dreaming of getting to the big leagues and wearing 62 or 71.

Rogers: “Our clubhouse guy was telling me we don’t have a whole lot of numbers that are even available! The Giants have so many retired numbers, and we’ve got 13 people on our coaching staff that also get a number. We’re running out, so there’s going to be even more obscure jersey numbers for the next guys that get called up. Our first base coach is already in 00, and our bullpen coach is 0. We’re using all of them.”

Roberson: I think zero is going to become more popular. That’s my official prediction.

Rogers: “Are any players wearing zero right now?”

Roberson: There are a couple. Have you ever seen anyone do something crazy to get a teammate’s jersey number?

Rogers: “When Pablo Sandoval came back to the Giants, he needed to get 48 back. Steven Okert had it at the time.”

Roberson: Was that just a straight cash settlement?

Rogers: “I’m not totally sure on the details. But I know Steven was taken care of. Let’s just say that.”

Roberson: Well, he kind of had no choice, right? It’s Pablo Sandoval. He’s a Giants legend. What’s he supposed to say? “No actually I’m going to keep this.”

Rogers: “No doubt.”

Roberson: I had Thompson guess how many people have ever worn 81. For whatever reason, 71 is a little more popular. Would you like to guess how many people have worn it?

Rogers: “Ooh, okay. I’ll go 30. One per team?”

Roberson: It’s more than that. When I asked you the question, honestly, I thought it’d be a quicker count. It looks like we’re at 58 guys total in the history of major league baseball.

Rogers: “I’ve noticed there’s a decent amount of guys wearing 71 right now. [Note: Twelve different players have worn 71 during the 2021 season, though a few of them have already switched away from it.]

Roberson: I would imagine Wade Davis is the leader in career WAR while wearing 71.  [Note: The answer is actually Taylor Douthit, though he allegedly wore the number for the Cardinals from 1923 to 1931, before data on this kind of stuff is anywhere close to official.]

Rogers: “Absolutely. Then, who we got, Josh Hader?”

Roberson: Scott Linebrink wore it for a few good years with the Brewers and the White Sox. After that, it’s a lot of guys who don’t have a ton of service time. It’s a lot of guys, to be honest, that I’ve never heard of.

Rogers: “Yeah, yeah, probably a lot of relievers who just got called up.

Roberson: Why do you think the weird numbers tend to go to pitchers more than position players?

Rogers: “That’s a good question. It’s probably for jersey sales? That’d be my guess. Position players sell more jerseys because they play nine innings every day. They’re on TV more. No one buys relief pitcher jerseys, so they just give us obscure numbers.”

Roberson: Position players are more pampered, is what you’re saying.

Rogers: “In a roundabout way. [Laughs]”





Matthew is a contributor at FanGraphs and a staff writer/podcast host at Lookout Landing. His previous work includes bylines at Baseball Prospectus, Riot Fest, and one-on-one interviews with Sue Bird, Megan Rapinoe, Brenden Dillon, David Fizdale, and several minor league players. He goes by the full Matthew, and it's pronounced RAW-berson.

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tim
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tim

Nice article. Fun read