Yanks P Hawkins changes to No. 22 after fan outrage

Updated: April 16, 2008, 8:13 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- LaTroy Hawkins saw his number was up.

The reliever succumbed to pressure from New York Yankees fans who felt No. 21 still belonged to Paul O'Neill and switched to No. 22 when the team began a two-game series against the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night.

"What can I say? The fans have always been unbelievable to me there," O'Neill said in a telephone interview from his home in Ohio. "I don't really know how to explain it. It makes you feel good that the fans still think of you as wearing that number."

Hawkins signed with the Yankees during the offseason and wore No. 22 -- which Roger Clemens had last year -- during spring training. Morgan Ensberg wore No. 21 during spring training and switched to No. 11 when the season began. Hawkins then took over No. 21, wanting to honor Roberto Clemente -- Hawkins has a yellow "Retire 21" sticker from retire21.org on the side of his locker.

A fan favorite because of his emotional play, O'Neill was with the Yankees from 1993-2001 and helped the team win four World Series titles.

"I obviously understand the feelings for Paul O'Neill because I was here, and I know what he meant to me as a teammate and what he means to me as a friend, and what he means to the people of New York, Yankees fans," manager Joe Girardi said. "But LaTroy was trying to honor Roberto Clemente, someone he looked up to. It was nothing against Paul O'Neill. I think LaTroy has the ultimate respect for Paul O'Neill. It's a tough spot."

Hawkins didn't want to discuss the change Thursday, saying the focus on the number was "unbelievable." On Tuesday, he told CBSSports.com he made the decision after speaking with Yankees captain Derek Jeter and reliever Mariano Rivera, who played alongside O'Neill.

"I figure if it's important enough for Jeter and Mariano and some other veterans to ask me about it, it's not worth it to keep wearing the number," Hawkins was quoted as saying.

O'Neill, a broadcaster for the YES Network, isn't scheduled to work another game until next week in Chicago. The five-time All-Star said he was largely unaware of the ruckus.

"Obviously, I have nothing against LaTroy for wearing that number," he said.

Girardi intimated the Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a longtime O'Neill fan, might have been behind the change.

"My guess is it always comes from the Boss," he said.

Steinbrenner spokesman Howard Rubenstein said the owner was not involved in the switch.

Hawkins, shaking his head at his locker -- still marked as No. 21 -- said there was one advantage in the change: He still had his gear from spring training.

"I didn't have to change none of my stuff that was already embroidered," he said.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press