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. 16
Best player: Braves C Brian McCann (2005-13, 2019)
Honorable mentions: United DF Chris McCann (2017-18), Braves SS Rafael Ramirez (1980-87), Falcons QB Dave Archer (1984-87)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 16: 40
Summary: There’s a clear answer to this one, and it’s Brian McCann. The Duluth, Ga., native played 10 seasons in Atlanta and made seven All-Star teams while becoming a revered leader and fan favorite. McCann bridged the Chipper Jones era and the Freddie Freeman era and was a perennial contributor in between. He finished his time with the Braves batting .275 and hitting 188 home runs with 706 RBIs. McCann ultimately ended up winning a World Series with Houston, but he will undoubtedly go down as an Atlanta Brave.
Chris McCann deserves a shoutout for the starting role he played for Atlanta United’s MLS championship run in 2018, although he was only with the club for two seasons. Rafael Ramirez was named to an All-Star team in 1984 and spent eight seasons with the franchise, although the team did not have much success during that stretch.
Jersey No. 17
Best player: Thrashers LW Ilya Kovalchuk (2001-10)
Honorable mentions: Braves IF Glen Hubbard (1978-87), Falcons QB Bob Berry (1968-72), Falcons KR Devin Hester (2014-15)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 17: 42
Summary: This is another easy call, and the title goes to Ilya Kovalchuk. Quite possibly the best player to ever suit up for the Thrashers, Kovalchuk was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft and lived up to that billing. He spent eight years with the Thrashers, making two All-Star teams and winning the Maurice Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer with 41 goals during the 2003-04 season. Kovalchuk averaged an insane 42 goals during his run in Atlanta, making him one of the best offensive players in the league. Casual Atlanta fans may not remember many Thrasher players, but most have probably heard Kovalchuk’s name before.
Glen Hubbard was another mainstay during a down period in Braves history. The longtime second baseman made one All-Star appearance during his decade-long run in Atlanta and had 403 RBIs. One of the first quarterbacks in Falcons history, Bob Berry made his lone Pro Bowl during the 1969 season. He played five years in Atlanta, finishing with a 19-28-3 record with the team. Another notable Falcon to don No. 17 was Devin Hester, who only spent two years in Atlanta but was the NFL’s leading kickoff returner in 2014, the same year he broke the all-time touchdown return record.
Jersey No. 18
Best player: WR Calvin Ridley (2018-present)
Honorable mentions: Thrashers RW Marian Hossa (2005-08), DF Jeff Larentowicz (2017-20) Braves LF Ryan Klesko (1992-99)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 18: 59
Summary: That Calvin Ridley already earns the top spot here is more a testament to his caliber of play than an indictment of the level of competition he faces. In just three seasons, Ridley has emerged as one of the best young wide receivers in the NFL. Since he was drafted in 2018, Ridley’s 3,061 receiving yards are fourth-most in the league, and his 26 receiving touchdowns rank second. With Julio Jones now in Tennessee, Ridley is expected to truly ascend to become the No. 1 receiver in Atlanta. Given what he’s already accomplished, that should help him only build his lead for the top No. 18 in Atlanta sports history.
Marian Hossa, an NHL Hall of Famer and one of the best offensive hockey players of all time, would be the clear pick here if he had spent more than two-and-a-half seasons in Atlanta. Still, his time with the Thrashers was memorable, and he 108 goals in just 222 games. Likewise, Jeff Larentowicz is deserving of this spot. The mainstay defensive midfielder was a key piece of Atlanta’s first four MLS seasons, playing nearly 3,000 minutes during United’s championship seasons. Larentowicz brought a distinguished career to Atlanta and retired with plenty of accolades. And while many remember Ryan Klesko as a San Diego Padre, he had a good run with the Braves before heading out west.
Jersey No. 19
Best player: Braves SS Andrelton Simmons (2012-15)
Honorable mentions: Flames D Ed Kea (1973-79), Falcons QB Bob Lee (1973-74)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 19: 51
Summary: This isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing number out there, but Andrelton Simmons’s defensive play was the very definition of aesthetically pleasing. Simply put: He did things at the shortstop position that I’ve never seen before and doubt I’ll ever see again. If he had played longer in Atlanta, Simmons would easily dominate what is a relatively weak group of contenders for this number. Still, he was a two-time Gold Glove winner, a Platinum Glove winner and named the Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. In case you forgot just how amazing Simmons was, take a look at this:
Jersey No. 20
Best player: Dream F Sancho Lyttle (2009-17)
Honorable mentions: Falcons CB Brent Grimes (2007-2012), Falcons KR Allen Rossum (2002-06), Flames D Jean Lemieux (1973-76), Hawks PF John Collins (2017-present), Braves 2B Mark Lemke (1988-97)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 20: 82
Summary: Given that this is an exercise meant to recognize all Atlanta athletes to wear a specific number, I have no problem putting Sancho Lyttle in the top spot. Simply, she’s dominated her sport for longer and meant more to the Atlanta Dream than any other player on this list has meant to their team. During her near-decade run in Atlanta, Lyttle made the All-Defensive team six times, including four straight, and is one of the best active defenders in the game. She averaged 11.2 points, 8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game while helping the Dream reach three WNBA Finals. Her 25.3 win shares remain the third-best in franchise history.
Now, strong arguments could be made for both Brent Grimes and Allen Rossum to hold this spot. “Optimus Grimes” was one of the most electrifying cornerbacks to ever suit up for the Falcons, and he had 13 interceptions and 56 pass defenses during his six seasons in Atlanta. All told, however, he only started 43 games during that span and played a full season just twice. Rossum is one of the best return men in NFL history. In his five Atlanta seasons, Rossum topped 1,000 kick return yards four times and led the league with 545 punt return yards in 2003. He is in the conversation for the best Falcons kick returner of all time. John Collins is an interesting player on this list, and could make a run at the top spot if he continues to be a Hawk for several more seasons.
Next up: Nos. 21-25
Who is the best player to wear a number 16-20?
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