Friday, November 20, 2015

Baseball should retire Roberto Clemente's No. 21
Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, 9:24 p.m.

Baseball is sending the Pirates to Puerto Rico to play on Roberto Clemente Day.

That is a good call by commissioner Rob Manfred. It should be only the beginning to a great plan.

Here's the plan, Mr. Commissioner.

You mandate that for the first of two games between the Pirates and Marlins on May 30 in San Juan, everybody in uniform wears No. 21. Then, after Roberto Clemente Jr., throws out the ceremonial first pitch at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, you command everybody to “take off those jerseys.”

And then you turn to Vera Clemente and say, “Nobody will ever wear your husband's number again.”

A few days later at PNC Park, the Clemente family finds the Pirates have cut No. 21 into the right-field grass. Owner Bob Nutting tells them the grass will look that way forever.

Sounds perfect, doesn't it, Mr. Commissioner?

Actually, it's a sound that is long overdue. Your predecessor, Bud Selig, missed two obvious opportunities to retire the number of the Pittsburgh baseball legend who is a Latin American icon.

The 1994 All-Star Game was at Three Rivers Stadium, where Roberto Clemente recorded his 3,000th (and final) hit. That was Strike 1.

The 2006 All-Star Game was at PNC Park, where baseball's best view includes the striking yellow bridge renamed in Clemente's honor. That was Strike 2.

Don't whiff, Mr. Commissioner.

There's a fat, juicy fastball coming. If you can't hit it over the fence, at least rip it into a gap like “The Great One” did so often during 18 sensational seasons.

The upcoming summer represents the 50th anniversary of Clemente's MVP season. It was one of his many firsts for the Latin American community.

In 1960, he became that community's first regular position player for a World Series champion. In 1971, he became that community's first World Series MVP. In 1973, he became that community's first Baseball Hall of Famer.

If you're wondering what all those firsts mean now, take a look at your latest Opening Day, Mr. Commissioner.
Latin Americans made up 29.3 percent of players on major league rosters.

The percentage of Latin Americans on Opening Day rosters actually increased from 2014 to '15. There was a decrease in the percentage of whites, blacks and Asians.

A study authored annually by noted expert on sports racial equality, Richard Lapchick, suggests the National Pastime isn't a passion anymore for an awful lot of people.

Latin Americans live and breathe baseball.

Latin Americans also are breathing life into baseball.

No. 21 should be retired for Latin Americans, just like baseball retired Jackie Robinson's No. 42 for black Americans.

I never thought any number should be universally retired until Thursday. But when baseball announced the Pirates-Marlins games in Puerto Rico, my thoughts steered toward what might happen when a child asks his parents why the number of a Dodgers' player is retired in Pittsburgh.

I also thought of that famous saying about baseball, apple pie and America.

Maybe it needs said more often why apple pie and Major League Baseball weren't always available to all Americans.

If sports can keep us talking, sports will have served a greater purpose. By retiring Robinson's No. 42, baseball provided a gateway into conversations for generations of Americans who might not believe stories they need to hear.

I'm part of a generation of Pittsburgh kids who never watched Clemente play for the Pirates. We've all heard the stories, and every version of Clemente's ends the same way.

The baseball player who could do anything and had everything died trying to deliver supplies to victims of an earthquake.

The 50th anniversary of Clemente's MVP should be the year we have a conversation about what truly makes a man “valuable.”

Even timeless stories need to keep being told, Mr. Commissioner.

Retire No. 21.

There will never be a day at the ballpark that isn't made better by talking about Roberto Clemente Walker.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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