What is the best jersey number in Atlanta sports history?
That simple question led me on a journey through time to find the answer. Icons can come packaged in every feasible way. Whether it be in a crisp clean single digit like No. 7 (Michael Vick), a classic like No. 21 (Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins) or a relatively unassuming numeral like 31 (Greg Maddux), each of these numbers means something in Atlanta sports lore.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be unveiling my findings five jersey numbers at a time. I looked at each of the major sports franchises in the city’s history, from the Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Dream, United, Thrashers and Flames, all in order to catalog the definitive list of jersey numbers and whose worn them.
Before we get to the list, a few rules: A player had to play multiple seasons in Atlanta to be considered. I did not include any player who played for a franchise while it was located in another city; they had to have played in Atlanta.
To determine value and talent, I used a value-related stat for each sport such as Wins Above Replacement (baseball) or Point Share (hockey). Sometimes, I will make a subjective call. You may disagree, but that’s the fun of all of this, right? So, feel free to debate in the comments and let’s have a fun walk down memory lane. Let’s go!
Jersey No. 26
Best player: P Gene Garber (1979-1987)
Honorable mentions: Falcons RB Tevin Coleman (2015-18), Hawks SG Kyle Korver (2012-17)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 26: 50
Summary: One of the longest-tenured closers in Braves history, Gene Garber ranks third on the team’s all-time saves list with 141. Only Craig Kimbrel and John Smoltz have more. Garber is perhaps most known for ending Pete Rose’s 44-game hit streak and preventing him from setting a new MLB record. Possessing a devastating change-up, Garber oscillated from a closer role and a relief role – mostly because the Braves for some reason kept trying to find someone else - and he ended his time in Atlanta with a 53-73 record, a 3.34 ERA and 540 strikeouts.
Tevin Coleman and Kyle Korver are fitting honorable mentions together because they were both incredibly effective role players for a stretch of Atlanta sports history. Paired with Devonta Freeman, Coleman was an explosive home-run hitter at running back with the speed to break off huge gains and a threat as a receiver. During the Hawks run at the Eastern Conference Finals, Korver hit nearly 50 percent of his three-point shots and was one of the most effective sharpshooters in the league while in Atlanta.
Jersey No. 27
Best player: Braves 1B Fred McGriff (1993-97)
Honorable mentions: Falcons S Tom Pridemore (1978-85), Flames LW Eric Vail (1973-80)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 27: 66
Summary: This is a very worthy group of candidates, but Fred McGriff’s role in the Braves’ 1995 championship gives him the leg up. A late addition to the very strong core of players who dominated in the 90s, McGriff put the group over the top. His debut for the Braves is legendary. A fire in the press box foreshadowed how red-hot McGriff would make the Braves in his first season, and it began with his two-run homer that helped Atlanta beat St. Louis in his first game with the team. McGriff was a three-time All-Star during his five years with the Braves and an MVP candidate for many of those seasons. He had a .293 batting average with the Braves and hit 130 home runs with 446 RBIs. Fans will always appreciate what The Crime Dog did to help Atlanta win the title.
Before Damontae Kazee was nabbing seven interceptions while wearing the No. 27, Tom Pridemore was doing so. He accomplished that feat during the 1981 season and even returned one of those picks 101 yards for a touchdown. He played eight seasons at free safety for the Falcons and ended his career with 21 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries, standing out as a true playmaker for the defense.
Eric Vail was named Rookie of the Year during his debut season in 1974, and he was an All-Star contender for nearly half of his seven seasons with the Atlanta Flames. He had a scoring mentality as a left wing and recorded 174 goals and 209 assists for Atlanta.
Jersey No. 28
Best player: Falcons RB Warrick Dunn
Honorable mentions: Thrashers D Niclas Havelid (2005-09), Falcons S Thomas DeCoud (2008-13), Falcons S Frank Reed (1976-80)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 28: 58
Summary: This isn’t the strongest overall group of athletes, but Warrick Dunn is a great top option. Considered a slightly undersized running back for his time, Dunn was tough as nails and an elusive inside runner. Paired with Michael Vick and T.J. Duckett, Dunn helped the Falcons boast one of the league’s best rushing attacks for multiple seasons.
His charity work off the field is a testament to his character as a person, and he is incredibly well respected within the organization. When his time in Atlanta came to an end after six seasons, Dunn had amassed 5,981 rushing yards, 1,635 receiving yards and 36 combined touchdowns.
Jersey No. 29
Best player: Braves P John Smoltz (1988-2008)
Honorable mentions: Falcons DB Clarence Ellis (1972-74), Falcons FS Keion Carpenter (2002-05)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 29: 44
Summary: John Smoltz is one of the most iconic athletes in Atlanta sports history. Part of the Braves Holy Trinity of pitchers that also included Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Smoltz was both an excellent starter and closer for Atlanta. Now a Hall of Famer, Smoltz won the Cy Young award in 1996 when he posted a 24-8 record with a 2.94 ERA. The eight-time All-Star also won a Silver Slugger Award in 1997 and was named NLCS MVP in 1992. Smoltz nearly played the entirety of his 21-year career in Atlanta, and he finished with a 210-147 record over the course of 20 seasons. Only Craig Kimbrel has more saves in franchise history than Smoltz, who recorded 154 in a four-year stretch. Smoltz posted a career 3.26 ERA in Atlanta with 53 complete games and 3,011 strikeouts. He’s a pitching legend.
Clarence Ellis is somewhat of a mystery. The 15th-overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft, Ellis started 41 games for the Falcons over three seasons and recorded eight interceptions. He only spent three seasons in the NFL, however, and it’s unclear why exactly that is. Likewise, Keion Carpenter had a successful three-year run with the Falcons, picking off nine passes and defending 26 more. Unfortunately, he missed the entirety of Atlanta’s successful 2004 campaign.
Jersey No. 30
Best player: Flames G Dan Bouchard
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 30: 71
Summary: Despite the large volume of athletes to have worn No. 30 over the years, it produced the smallest crop of successful players of any number in our series to date. But Flames goalie Dan Bouchard was a sensation. Bouchard played eight seasons in Atlanta, tending goal in 384 games during that stretch. He had a record of 164-134 in the games he started and posted a save percentage of 90, saving nearly 10,000 shots on goal during his time between the pipes in Atlanta. A fringe All-Star for several seasons, Bouchard’s best year was perhaps the 1978-79 campaign when he played in 64 games and won 32 starts, both tops in the league.
Next up: Nos. 31-35
Who is the best player to wear a number 26-30?
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