According to Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker, the Nippon Ham Fighters are planning to “unofficially” retire the number 11, should right hander Yu Darvish reach an agreement to play for the Texas Rangers.
It’s not unusual for a Major League club to stop issuing a given number, but not officially retire the digits. either. The Detroit Tigers, for example, haven’t issued the number 1 or the number 47 since Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris last wore them, respectively. Neither number is officially retired, however.
Unlike that MLB practice, however, in Japan things tend to go a bit differently. Instead of honoring a given player by no longer issuing that player’s number, Japanese teams will go the other way. Newman’s piece notes that Japanese clubs traditionally have a number (usually 18) assigned to their top pitcher; an “ace number” if you will.
According to Newman, only one Japanese club has assigned the number 18 to a non-pitcher, and 18 is the number chosen by Hiroki Kuroda and Daisuke Matsuzaka for their major league clubs as well. Darvish, himself, wore 18 during the 2008 Olympics, but only because Kenshin Kawakami was assigned number 11.
It is the plan of the Fighters to make the number 11 their new “ace number” as a way to honor the short, but legendary career of Darvish. The number will remain out of circulation until the Fighters develop another “absolute, Darvish-caliber ace.”