WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Jake Noll lowered his voice, peeking across the clubhouse as he did, hoping his words didn’t carry too far across the room.
“My preferred number would be 31,” Noll, a minor league infielder for the Washington Nationals, said with a shy grin in mid-February.
“Well you’re never getting 31,” chimed in Wil Crowe, a Nationals pitching prospect.
“Obviously I know that,” answered Noll, whose locker is next to Crowe’s. “What number would you want?”
“Oh, I know I’m not getting my favorite number,” said Crowe, turning a bit red. “It’s 37.”
They broke into laughter, Noll leaning his shoulder into Crowe’s body, both of their faces creased by a pipe dream: Three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer wears Noll’s preferred number of 31; star pitcher Stephen Strasburg wears Crowe’s coveted No. 37.
Noll, a nonroster invitee in his first major league camp, wears No. 71; Crowe, 24 years old and a former second-round pick, has 72. The Nationals took a small group of minor leaguers to face the Atlanta Braves in Lake Buena Vista on Monday, and they wore Nos. 84, 85, 89 and 91, with no names on their backs.
They are some of the many young players, across the league, wearing assigned spring training numbers that seem better suited for offensive linemen or wide receivers in football. It is a rite passage for those trying to become top prospects, turn potential into promise, and one day — some day — crack into the big leagues. Knocking down those numbers becomes one of a player’s many goals, if only because it loosely symbolizes a team’s investment in their future.
Spencer Kieboom, a 27-year-old catcher, wore 64 for two seasons before grabbing No. 27 this winter. Outfielder Andrew Stevenson, a fringe major leaguer, went from No. 45 to No. 17 between last season and this one. Carter Kieboom, a 21-year-old shortstop and the Nationals’ top prospect, is wearing No. 8 in his first major league camp and that stands out given his age and inexperience.
Noll, Crowe and Washington’s other major league hopefuls want their numbers to be shaved down next.
“I guess 71 is pretty cool,” Noll said. “It could be worse. I could be like . . . 74. Is anyone 74?”
That’s worn by 25-year-old catcher Taylor Gushue, in his second big league camp and sitting a few lockers down from Noll in West Palm Beach. It is the highest number at Nationals spring training. Gushue sarcastically professed his love for it — “Peak of my career, really, top of the mountain,” he joked — before admitting that numbers don’t mean much to him.
But everyone has their favorite, for reasons important or not, and guys notice when others move in the right direction. Gushue, who reached Class AA Harrisburg last season, likes 32 because he had it during his best minor league year. Noll, who finished with the Class A Potomac Nationals, likes 31 because it was assigned to him as a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University. Crowe, named Washington’s co-minor league pitcher of the year for 2018, likes 37 because it was worn by Red Ruffing, a Hall of Fame righty and his great-great uncle.
“You see a guy like Spencer Kieboom work really hard, get to the bigs and get bumped down to 27, and it’s pretty cool,” said Gushue, nodding to his fellow catcher. “It does make you want to do the same.”
Tres Barrera got a bit lucky with his jersey this spring. Since his first name translates to “Three” in Spanish, the Mexican-American catcher always likes to have a “3” in his number. His favorite is 13 — currently worn by third-base coach Bobby Henley — but Barrera was still excited to see No. 73 hanging in his locker once he reported to camp.
But Barrera, like Noll, Crowe and Gushue, is really just happy to have a uniform at all. A spring training invite is a logical step toward a future call-up, and a future call-up is the only way to become a major league regular. Then a number can go from high to lower, even if some desired options are already taken.
“To be clear, I don’t want 31 or anything,” Noll said, again looking across the clubhouse at Scherzer’s locker. “Can you just say that, like, 35 is my favorite number?”
“You’re going to be waiting a long time for 31,” Crowe offered.
“I don’t want 31! I’m not waiting!” Noll shot back before lowering his voice. “I’d wear No. 99 if it meant playing in the show.”
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