Most of them are not household names, not in the traditional sense when it comes to baseball stars. In small towns across this country, however, their names are legendary.
So are their numbers.
Minor league baseball has existed since the 1870s, giving more than 200,000 ballplayers a chance to showcase their skills in hopes of making it to the major leagues. Only on incredibly rare occasions has one of those players made such an impact in a minor league community that his jersey number was retired by a franchise.
In fact, through contacting every franchise in the minor leagues, the Mirror discovered there currently are only 111 numbers retired, taking into account the 188 teams from rookie ball to Triple-A. The vast majority of those 111 are players or coaches, while a few represent other people or aspects of the local community.
Altoona Curve legend Adam Hyzdu is a member of the select list, having his No. 16 retired in 2000. Hyzdu was back in town Tuesday to play in the Curve's Eastern League All-Star charity softball game at Peoples Natural Gas Field, giving him a chance to see how much he still means to fans years after playing his final game in Altoona.
"He was like our Ralph Kiner here," Curve owner Bob Lozinak said.
"For a lot of reasons, people in Altoona just really connected with Adam Hyzdu," team general manager Rob Egan said.
"He was the whole package," said former GM Jeff Parker, who came up with the idea to retire Hyzdu's number.
Many fans around the country may not know Hyzdu's name, just as fans in Altoona may not recognize the names of others who have had their numbers retired elsewhere. What matters most, though, and what separates the minor leagues from the major leagues, is that any player - not just a superstar - has a chance to leave a lasting legacy in a small town.
That's what makes them minor league legends.
Legend of Mr. Curve
Timing is everything in life. Had Hyzdu joined the Curve in 2003 or 2008 or any other year, there's little chance his number would be retired. But he came along at the perfect time, during the team's inaugural season in 1999, and he became the face of the franchise in a town that loves its baseball and was immensely passionate about finally having a minor league team of its own.
"We were blessed at that time to have him," Lozinak said. "We really didn't have much of a ballclub at all. He brought life, he brought people to the stadium and brought enthusiasm to the game."
The All-American boy who broke Ken Griffey Jr.'s home run record at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Hyzdu was a first-round draft pick in 1990 who had never fully reached his potential in pro ball. He was released by the Boston Red Sox in May 1999 at age 27.
"I didn't think I was done by any means," Hyzdu said. "But then after making a couple calls and there weren't people calling right away, I was like, 'Wait a minute, maybe this is the end of the road.'"
It wasn't. Not by a long shot.
The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Hyzdu, sent him to Altoona and he became a local legend. He hit .316 with 24 homers and 78 RBIs for the Curve in 1999, then he surprisingly was sent back here by the Pirates instead of going to Triple-A in 2000.
Hyzdu enjoyed one of the best EL seasons in the past 30 years as he belted 31 homers, drove in 106 and batted .290 for the Curve. He played in all 142 games and committed just one error in right field.
"Those are numbers that you don't see in the minor leagues very often," said Egan, the team's broadcaster back then. "It was amazing. He would step up in a clutch situation, and you almost expected a big hit. He just produced almost every time in big situations"
It wasn't just the success on the field that made Hyzdu so beloved in Altoona. He was a media darling, a great team spokesman and a willing participant to take part in all the community activities that are asked - but not required - of a minor league player.
"It was his impact all the way around, as a player between the lines and as a community steward outside the lines," Parker said.
He only played here for nine months over the course of two years, but Hyzdu's name remains more synonymous with the Altoona Curve than any other player.
Hyzdu's name reached legendary status in Altoona on Sept. 4, 2000 when the franchise retired his No. 16 following the season finale. He had no idea it was coming, and it was part of a gala fireworks and entertainment show that he still fondly remembers.
"It's like something you do for Derek Jeter after this season, that's kind of what it felt like," Hyzdu said. "My son is 13 right now, and we were pregnant with him during that ceremony. It was just an amazing thing."
The decision to retire Hyzdu's number was a no-brainer to Parker and the Curve staff, but it was still highly unusual. The franchise was only two years old, and to this day, the Curve remain the youngest franchise in the minor leagues to have retired a number.
Parker admits there was a slight bit of hesitation on the team's behalf.
"I remember it coming up in the meetings that there was some concern that some people might be critical of it because of the franchise being in its infancy," Parker said.
"I don't think anybody objected to the point that we wouldn't consider doing it. It was more of, how is this going to be perceived publicly and how is it going to be perceived by the local media, mainly (the Mirror) and television and radio. Don't take offense to this, but we didn't care. We thought it was bigger than that."
Parker had the idea, but as the owner, Lozinak had the final decision about retiring Hyzdu's number. Lozinak was sold immediately, and he has no regrets about it.
"I really don't," the owner said. "In the minor leagues, people aren't here for several years to establish a baseline that you think of to retire a number. At the time that he played, he was an impact person for the ballclub."
Hyzdu remains incredibly proud to have been honored by the Curve.
"Everybody would like to be in the major league Hall of Fame or have their jersey retired for the Pirates or Royals or Red Sox, but I would never trade that experience in," Hyzdu said. "It's awesome. Here we are 14 years later and we're still talking about it and coming back.
"There's thousands of guys that have played that no one's ever going to remember. And here I am being remembered, so it's special."
Hyzdu finally made it to the major leagues with the Pirates at the end of the 2000 season, and for the remainder of his career he remained very closely associated with Altoona for already having his number retired in the minors.
He went on to play 221 games in the big leagues spread out over seven years - hitting .229 with 19 homers and 61 RBIs - and he also belted 273 homers in the minors. His career highlights included a National League Player of the Week honor for the Pirates in 2002 and being part of the Boston Red Sox's 2004 World Series team.
To this day, many Curve fans still pick Hyzdu as their favorite player in franchise history, even over the likes of current major league stars such as Andrew McCutchen and Jose Bautista.
"Adam's popularity remains with a lot of Curve fans," said John Prosperi, president of the team's booster club. "He is remembered for all his accomplishments in Altoona, his outgoing personality and his example of a good person as well as a good baseball player."
The Great Potato Caper
It's perhaps the greatest story in the history of minor league baseball, and it not only led to Dave Bresnahan having his number retired, it gave him a degree of immortality in the game.
"I'm glad it brings some smiles to people's faces because that was the intention," Bresnahan said.
Bresnahan was catching a game for the Double-A Williamsport Bills in 1987 when he pulled off what's known as "The Great Potato Caper." The opposing team had a runner on third base with two outs when Bresnahan called timeout and went into the dugout to fetch a peeled potato.
He came back out with the potato hidden and, after catching a pitch, he slipped the potato into his hand and fired it into left field trying to fool the runner. It worked. The runner came racing home, only to be tagged out because Bresnahan still had the baseball. (The umps later overturned the call.)
The prank had all been planned, of course, right down to having the potato ready. Bresnahan and some teammates had dreamed up the idea in the bullpen a few weeks earlier, all with the idea of having a little fun with the game.
The consequences for that fun turned out to be enormous for Bresnahan.
The Cleveland Indians were not amused by his antics and released the 25-year-old the next day. He never played pro ball again. He was hitting only .152 that season, so there's a good chance he wouldn't have stuck around much longer anyway.
The incident, though, brought Bresnahan an incredible amount of national attention.
"I'm overwhelmed by how much interest people have in that story," he said. "After all these years, it's still hard to get my head around.
"I'm thankful the Williamsport fans and baseball fans in general understood the light humor intended in what I did. There was no way that I thought for a second that I would get the notoriety that I did."
Williamsport wound up retiring his No. 59. Bresnahan, who now owns a real estate company in Arizona, said he's proud and at the same time a little embarrassed about how he became famous.
But does he regret it?
"No, I don't regret it at all," said Bresnahan, who never meant to disrespect the game. "I'm glad that it's something that when people are passionate baseball fans, they enjoy hearing the story. I've told it a million times, and when people do ask me to tell it, I try to give it the enthusiastic energy that the story deserves."
Heartbreak ... and hope
Many sad stories have led to players having their number retired in the minors. The story of Matt LaChappa is indeed sad, but it's also heartwarming.
"He was a very good pitcher and a really great kid," said Priscilla Oppenheimer, former director of minor league operations for the San Diego Padres.
LaChappa, a second-round draft pick in 1993, was warming up in the bullpen for a relief appearance at Single-A Rancho Cucamonga on April 6, 1996 when he suffered a heart attack. Fluid had built up around his heart, and CPR was administered at the scene for 20 minutes to keep him alive until the ambulance arrived.
LaChappa, just 20 at the time, went into a coma and suffered another heart attack in the hospital. He survived, but the trauma led to him being paralyzed and wheelchair-bound the rest of his life.
"His mind is there," Oppenheimer said. "He's a great kid, he's still got a sense of humor. He's just a very special person."
The Padres then did something special for LaChappa, with Oppenheimer making the decision. The organization has continued to sign him to a minor league contract every year, primarily so he can keep his insurance to help cover costs for his 24-hour care.
"(Then-Padres President) Larry Lucchino was there and told him, 'You'll always be a Padre,'" Oppenheimer said. "I took that literally and said to Matt, 'You will always be a Padre.'"
Oppenheimer is now retired but has been a frequent visitor over the years to see LaChappa at his home on the Barona Indian Reservation in San Diego. Matt's father is a tribal leader, and Oppenheimer said the family has given him wonderful support over the years.
The bond between LaChappa and Oppenheimer goes far beyond that of a ballplayer and team executive.
"I can understand him when he says, 'I love you,' and a few other things," she said. "His speech isn't as good as I think it used to be, but he's very aware of who you are.
"I'm looking right now on my desk, and his picture's there. He's just so dear to me."
It meant a great deal to LaChappa and his family when Rancho Cucamonga retired Matt's No. 20 jersey.
"It made them feel that they had respect for him as a person and as a player," Oppenheimer said. "I was there the day they retired his number, and his dad threw out the first pitch and his brothers were there. It was just a great event that they really cherished."
Notable names and numbers
The most famous non-baseball player to have his number retired is NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, who died racing in the Daytona 500 in 2001. He had just purchased the Single-A team in his hometown of Kannapolis, N.C.
"He was a hero that touched all people," said former Curve GM Todd Parnell, who was GM in Kannapolis at the time of Earnhardt's death. "Once you met him and once you knew him, he was the most down to earth person you'd ever want to meet."
Earnhardt's No. 3 is retired by the franchise, which bears his nickname, the Intimidators.
Some other unique stories:
* The Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats are the only team that has retired the badge number of a police officer. Michael Briggs was killed in the line of duty in 2006, and the No. 83 is retired by the club in tribute.
* Once-promising New York Mets prospect Brian Cole died in an auto accident in 2001, and his family won a $131 million lawsuit verdict from Ford Motor Company for faulty vehicle design. His No. 6 is retired by the Single-A St. Lucie Mets.
* Greg Halman of the Mariners was stabbed to death by his brother in his native Netherlands in 2011. The brother had been using marijuana that caused him to go into a state of psychosis, and a jury found him not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Halman's No. 26 is retired by the short-season Everett AquaSox.
* The player most similar to Hyzdu on the retired number list is Jeff Manto, who put up big numbers at Triple-A Buffalo for four seasons and was a fan favorite. Like Hyzdu, Manto didn't have a great major league career but was very popular in Buffalo and had his No. 30 retired.
"We have the chance to make an impact in the community and for a baseball team, and these are towns that appreciate what we do as players," Manto said. "You look at what Adam did in Altoona, they're as passionate as it comes in baseball. They appreciate good product and good people."
What's next for Curve?
Altoona's franchise has no plans to retire more numbers any time soon, but it does intend to start a hall of fame after its 20th season in 2018.
If the Curve do retire a number or choose a player for their hall of fame, what criteria will they use? Will it be based on success and impact in Altoona, such as with Hyzdu, or on success at the major league level? For instance, would the Curve be more likely to honor Brad Eldred or Andrew McCutchen?
Eldred belted 30 homers in only 60 games for Altoona in 2004-05 - the most in such a short span in Double-A history - and he set what is believed to be a minor league record with 50 RBIs in one month in 2004. But he did not enjoy major league success.
McCutchen, on the other hand, is a big league star for the Pirates and 2013 National League MVP. But he's not close to being one of the best players while with the Curve, hitting .258 with 10 homers and 48 RBIs playing most of a full season in 2007.
Egan said the franchise would like to have a committee come up with selection criteria, as opposed to one person.
"In my opinion they have to have performed very well to excellent here, because it's what it means to Curve fans," Egan said. "It would be very easy for us to say McCutchen or someone who had success in the major leagues or with the Pirates. But I think it's got to be based in how they performed here, first of all, and then maybe you blend in major league performance."