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The Clemente family would like to semi-retire Roberto Clemente’s number

Jul 13, 2011, 11:00 AM EDT


A few years ago, the family of Roberto Clemente got behind a movement to try to have Roberto Clemente’s number 21 retired across all of baseball, just as Jackie Robinson’s 42 is retired.

Bud Selig put the kibosh on that. I agreed with Bud, frankly. Clemente was a special player and the example of both his life and his death were inspiring ones, but Robinson’s honor should remain singular. If you do it for Clemente, you open the door for good arguments for retiring the numbers of lots of special players/inspirational men.

But, as Dejan Kovacevic reports in today’s Pittsburgh Tribune, the Clementes have an alternative suggestion.  Fine, don’t retire Clemente’s number. But make it special. Semi-retired if you will, with it being handed out sparingly to those who are deemed worthy:

So, if a Puerto Rican such as the New York Mets’ Carlos Beltran asks to wear the number and honor Clemente as many Latino players have done …

“No,” Vera interjected. “He has to earn it.”

That’s when it resonated: The only players who could wear No. 21 would be those who have won the Roberto Clemente Award, which has been given annually since 1972 — the year of Clemente’s death — to players of all 30 teams who best exemplify excellence on and off the field.

There’s a certain cool-factor to this. You win the Clemente award and you win the right to wear 21.  It’s not retired, it’s just special. It’s certainly a unique idea.

My biggest problem with it: players are weird about their numbers and don’t like to change them. If they did this, would the player be obligated to wear 21?  If not, would he be slammed if, for some reason, he decided that good luck and fate and habit demanded that he keep the number that has served him so well in the past?  “Derek Jeter thinks he’s too good to wear Clemente’s number!” some headline might scream. Does anyone really want that?

And that’s the thing: check out the list of Clemente Award winners.  Lots of guys on there already have their own iconic numbers that either have been or one day will be retired. We cool with Jeter changing from number 2 in 2009?  How about Cal Ripken? Ozzie Smith? Pujols? Willie Freakin’ Mays?

I appreciate that the Clementes and Roberto Clemente supporters want to do something special to honor him.  But there are practical limitations to what can and should be done in this regard. I don’t think we’re at risk of forgetting Clemente. But if we start doing this kind of thing, we’re going to make things more awkward than they need to be.

  1. Paul White - Jul 13, 2011 at 11:12 AM

    How about Clemente Award winners earn the right to wear a 21 patch on their uniform, similar to a captain’s “C”? That way they don’t have to change their actual number, but 21 is given a special place on the uniform for those deemed worthy.

    • jerseydevi1 - Jul 13, 2011 at 12:37 PM

      What if Varitek wins? He already has a Captain’s “C”

      • foreverchipper10 - Jul 13, 2011 at 1:28 PM

        He can get a “21” patch which he does not currently have. There is no limit of one patch per uniform.

      • clydeserra - Jul 13, 2011 at 8:06 PM

        NO limit to flair on a uniform?

  2. bcopus - Jul 13, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    That would be pretty confusing once you start to retire those players’ jerseys. Clemente family gets their way by proxy.

  3. alexb64 - Jul 13, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    I don’t like the idea of league’s retiring numbers across the board, the only one I did agree with was Jackie Robinson. What Clemente did & how he died was a heartbreaking & inspirational story, but it is not the same as Jackie’s story. It is the same of the NHL retiring 99 for every team, yeah I get that he’s the greatest hockey player ever but what do fans in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Anaheim etc have to honor Gretzky for? I think just the same way that I hope David Stern doesn’t universally retire #23 for Jordan. It’s a great tribute, but leave it up to the individual teams to decide what numbers they retire.

  4. pjmitch - Jul 13, 2011 at 1:15 PM

    I can’t believe that anyone is seriously even considering this type of idea. Nothing against Clemente or his family, but his number has been retired by the Pirates. There is an award named after him. Let it go. Have someone earn the #21??? Do we think that is what he would want? Have award winners get a patch to wear?? The uniform is not a Boy Scout merit badge sash. What is next, MVP awards patches? Rookie of the Year stripes? Cy Young Medals? It seems to me that the Clemente Family is making a mockery of the memory of their Father.


    • Richard In Big D - Jul 13, 2011 at 1:34 PM

      Did you not notice the backs of the jerseys worn by All Star players the week before the game? Uo by the MLB logo, just below the neckline. The era of the “merit badge sash” is coming, and nothing wrong with it, if done right. A little recognition goes a long way.

    • Paul White - Jul 13, 2011 at 2:38 PM

      I agree with you on the permanent retirement of 21 issue, but I don’t see a problem with the commemorative patch solution. In case you haven’t noticed, teams have worn patches to commemorate club anniversaries, passed-away players, passed-away broadcasters, passed-away owners, stadium birthdays, state anniversaries, upcoming all-star games, team captaincies, and a variety of other causes for years and years. Are you saying that a comparative handful of players wearing one little “21” patch is the tipping point that makes the uniforms suddenly look like boy scout sashes? Seriously?

  5. tolbuck - Jul 13, 2011 at 2:34 PM

    The Braves (Spahn) and the Indians (Lemon) have already retired #21. How do they incorporate this idea?

  6. jlinatl - Jul 13, 2011 at 2:54 PM

    Isn’t having the Clemente Award already honoring the man?

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