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.