Sports

The Thing Everyone Wants but No One Actually Wears

HOUSTON — Someday you may find yourself in a restaurant, an airport or a store with a member of the 2021 Atlanta Braves. You might remember him from that joyous throng bouncing around on the grass at Minute Maid Park in Houston after winning the World Series. And if you shake his hand, you might notice something missing.

The championship ring. Everybody wants it, but good luck finding someone who wears it.

“I haven’t worn it or looked at it since we got it,” said Alex Bregman, the third baseman for the Houston Astros, whose season ended with a 7-0 loss in Game 6 on Tuesday. “I’ve been focused on the next one.”

His ring, from 2017, is something like the sun: Bregman can always bask in its glow, but it’s very bright and he cannot look at it. The ring has 112 diamonds on top, one for each of the Astros’ victories in the regular season and playoffs that year. It also has an inscribed slogan, “Earned History,” which took on a bitter irony after revelations of the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing scheme from that season.

In Houston, at least, fans still revere the ring. A giant replica sits on the sidewalk outside the park, on Texas Street, beside bricks honoring the former president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who were dedicated Astros fans. In some ways, World Series rings are largely about connecting with fans, those loyal but unlucky folks who never get to win them.

“Some of these guys would wear it quite often, but I feel like I’m showing off,” said Rod Gaspar, a spare outfielder on the 1969 Mets, at a team reunion two years ago. “But a guy I’ve done business with over the years, he said, ‘Rodney, you need to wear the ring, not for you but for other people, because they’ve never seen a World Series ring.’ Very few have seen one.”

Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa were very happy to receive rings after their World Series win in 2017. Bregman says he has not worn his since.Credit…Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Steve Blass, who won the clincher for the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, went on to have a long career in the team’s broadcast booth. He wore the ring to work, he said, and delighted in showing it to fans he met at the ballpark. It also came in handy in another job, for Josten’s, the ring company, after his pitching career ended unexpectedly because of wildness in 1974.

“The fact that I could wear one helped me out, although the kids were wondering, ‘What’s this World Series hero doing selling high school class rings?’” Blass said. “I got a lot of funny looks. But Jostens liked to hire ex-professional athletes because they knew what it’s like to get their butt kicked and get up out of bed and get in the car and go out and work. You know winning and losing, so you’re not devastated when you don’t get a sale.”

In the mid-1970s, Blass was not selling the kinds of rings teams distribute today. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ 11-carat rings from 2020 — 222 round diamonds, 10 princess-cut diamonds, 45 custom-cut genuine sapphires and 8 round genuine sapphires — came in a box with an interior LCD screen that plays a four-minute highlight video, with sound, when opened.

And that ring is not even considered the gaudiest. Jeffrey Loria, an art dealer who owned the Marlins in 2003, commissioned a championship ring with 228 diamond chips and 13 rubies, part of a massive showpiece with the team name displayed across a twisting fish, with a teal diamond as its eye.

While nowhere near as ostentatious as the rings of today, the one Ed Kranepool won as a member of the 1969 Mets did not exactly blend in.Credit…Uli Seit for The New York Times

“It was a lot bigger than we expected,” said Rick Helling, a pitcher for that team who now works for the players’ association. “It was so big they actually made a smaller one that you could purchase to wear. What happened was, the owner was talking like, ‘Hey, if we win this thing, we’re going to have the best ring ever.’ So a lot of the players, like Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis, were like, ‘All right — you said it!’ And give him credit, he actually came through. It’s an amazing ring. When people see it, they’re like, ‘Wow!’”

Helling does not wear that ring, though, nor does he wear the much smaller ring he got for playing with the Marlins’ other title team, in 1997, even though he was traded to the Rangers that summer. It is customary, but not mandatory, to give rings to all players who appeared for a team in a championship season, though it wasn’t always that way.

Team owners can always right old wrongs. Peter O’Malley, who succeeded his father, Walter, as the Dodgers’ owner for many years, surprised a former pitcher, Joe Black, with an overdue memento from the team’s 1955 title in Brooklyn.

“Joe had been traded during the ’55 season,” said Leonard Coleman, the former National League president and a close friend of Black, who died in 2002. “One time in Vero Beach he said something to O’Malley like, ‘I didn’t even get a championship ring,’ nothing more than that. But a couple months later, I got a phone call from Joe: ‘You’re not going to believe this, but guess what Peter just sent me? He had a ’55 championship ring made for me!’ Now if you play for the team for a month, you get a ring and the whole works. But back then, they didn’t do it.”

In 1995, Ted Turner presented the Braves with a ring engraved, perhaps prematurely, with the slogan “Team of the 90s.” It is the last World Series ring produced without a team logo on top.Credit…Doug Collier/AFP, via Getty Images

Sal Fasano, an Atlanta coach, took one at-bat for the 2002 Angels and got a ring. He said on Tuesday in Houston that it symbolized everything he learned that season, and the winning example the Angels ingrained in him.

“But a ring here would mean probably 100 times more,” he said.

Fasano vowed to actually wear the Braves’ ring — though, of course, he will not know just how big it will be until the ceremony next spring. When he sees it, Fasano may find himself like A.J. Hinch, the manager of the 2017 Astros, who has used his ring as a ball marker to needle his buddies on the golf course but rarely wears it out.

“I mean, it’s enormous,” said Hinch, who now manages the Detroit Tigers. “And the second part of it is, in the terms of today’s kids, it’s like the biggest flex of all time. You almost feel uncomfortable showing off with it.”

Even Mr. October himself, the five-time champion Reggie Jackson, does not wear his World Series rings. On the field before Game 6 on Tuesday, his fingers were bare — “I’m a watch guy,” Jackson explained — but if he did wear a ring, it would probably be the one he got for being inducted to the Hall of Fame. That ring is more understated, with a simple baseball atop a black backdrop on its face.

“The Hall of Fame is more exclusive,” said Jackson, now an adviser to Astros owner Jim Crane. “Everybody gets a World Series ring. George was the guy that got generous.”

At the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., there are examples of every World Series ring. Former President Barack Obama made sure to try on the ring presented to the 2005 Chicago White Sox. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Yet even George Steinbrenner, the longtime Yankees owner who loved lavish gestures, probably did not spring for 1,332 rings, the total that Crane distributed in 2017 to Astros players, staff, front office members, trainers, clubhouse attendants, broadcasters and so on.

The Braves were similarly generous in 1995, awarding rings to minor league staffers like Brian Snitker, who is now their manager. Snitker keeps it in a lockbox.

“The things are not real comfortable to wear, if you want to know the truth,” he said.

That Braves ring — engraved, perhaps prematurely, with the slogan “Team of the 90s” — is the last one without a team logo on top, though naturally there are dozens of diamonds. Even so, John Schuerholz, the architect of the 1995 champions, did not wear it in Atlanta during this World Series.

Schuerholz, the former Braves general manager, wore his Hall of Fame ring instead. As important as it is to win a World Series ring, he once explained, it is not really baseball’s ultimate prize.

“I sat next to Bob Gibson the year after I was inducted, and I had a championship ring on; I didn’t have my Hall of Fame ring,” Schuerholz said. “I sit down and he says, ‘Where’s your Hall of Fame ring?’ I said, ‘Well, I didn’t know if it was appropriate to wear.’ He said, ‘Let me just say one thing: everybody in this picture today has lots of rings. No one will you ever see wearing a ring other than this one, because there’s no greater honor — for individuals, or for the team you represent or the organization you helped build.’ I said, ‘OK, Bob, I got that.’

“That intensity from Bob Gibson, that resonated with me. I wear this every day.”

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