Craig Calcaterra

Blogger at NBC's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.
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No, we do not need to retire Roberto Clemente’s number across baseball


Today Major League Baseball recognizes Roberto Clemente Day. As has become tradition, it is also the day when people stump for Major League Baseball to honor him in the same way that it honored Jackie Robinson in 1997: by permanently retiring Clemente’s number 21 across the game. Buster Olney of ESPN has a column up on it. His third this year on the topic if I’m counting correctly.

The surface appeal of such an honor is undeniable. When I first heard of the Clemente family’s desire to do such a thing, I thought it was a fantastic idea. But then I thought about it a bit more deeply. And, despite that appeal and despite the clear worthiness of Clemente to be honored in some higher fashion, I decided that it’s not an idea I can endorse and not one Major League Baseball should endorse.

As I’ve argued before, Clemente was a special player and the example of both his life and his death were inspiring ones, but Jackie Robinson’s honor — having his number retired throughout baseball — 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, with “inspirational” being able to be defined in any way at any given time depending on one’s chosen criteria. I don’t think we’re at risk of forgetting Clemente if we don’t retire his number and I do think we risk diluting baseball’s single greatest defining moment — Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier while segregation was still reigning supreme in America at large — by bestowing that honor on someone else.

Indeed, if anything, I think the manner in which Major League Baseball has chosen to venerate Clemente has, in some ways, obscured his legacy rather than helped it.

For one thing, we don’t really talk too much about Clemente the baseball player as opposed to Clemente the inspiration. Obviously the latter is more important in a real world sense, but if you talk to baseball fans now it’s amazing how little of Clemente’s baseball legacy is known or understood. Some people put him on the same level as Aaron or Mays which, with all apologies to Clemente, is overrating him. Others, in contrast, know very little about his actual playing career, which serves to underrate him (he was going into the Hall of Fame even before his heroic death). That’s to say nothing of the manner in which he was treated by the press and the baseball establishment while he lived, which often reflected how a lot of Latin players today are, to put it kindly, misunderstood by the American media and American fans. It’s probably worth noting that baseball’s version of sainthood, for lack of a better term, has in some ways obscured Robinson’s legacy in this regard as well, actually — 42 is retired and we need not think too hard about it all anymore! — and doing it even more so with Clemente does not seem like the best idea.

And that’s before you talk about how Major League Baseball handles the Roberto Clemente Award. As I noted yesterday, MLB has given hashtags to every team’s nominee for the award and is using fan tweeting and voting as a means of helping determine who wins it. How does getting random people on Twitter to come up with new and creative ways to tweet out “#VoteGardy” or “#VoteGrandy,” honor or appreciate a player’s humanitarian efforts? What does it say about how MLB values such humanitarian efforts? All it says to me is that Major League Baseball wants to use Clemente as a means of ramping up social media engagement which is . . . something less than inspirational.

Maybe, rather than retire Clemente’s number 21, Major League Baseball could do less to make Clemente a symbol and do more to illuminate his life and career in real terms. And maybe it could be more serious about how it handles the Roberto Clemente Award, which might serve to elevate its stature beyond some Internet contest. Doing that, I believe, would be better than giving Clemente an identical honor to that of Jackie Robinson in the misguided name of honoring him in a singular fashion.

Jeff Francoeur: one of the least valuable players of all time

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Jeff Francoeur has been a part of my life for a long, long time. He was the great, young hope for my favorite baseball team and then quickly became its albatross. He was shipped out of town and began an odyssey around baseball. New York, Texas. Kansas City, where I finally interviewed him and realized how nice a guy he was, even if he wasn’t ever going to be the player people thought he might one day be. San Francisco. Wait, San Francisco? *checks* Yep, San Francisco. Then San Diego and Philly. By the time he got to Philly I was so at peace with Frenchy that I bought a dang Phillies shirsey with his name on it.

This season, in one of the more inevitable moves ever, he came back to Atlanta, where people still think, for some reason, that it’s 2005 again and if you look at Frenchy in just the right light, he could be a star. Well, nope, and the Braves just unloaded him to the Marlins. Maybe he’ll be back again — he and Kelly Johnson should probably just be given permanent lockers in Atlanta — maybe he won’t. His legend, however, will never be forgotten.

Jon Bois of SB Nation is also a Braves fan and his relationship with Jeff Francoeur is pretty similar to mine. Frenchy drove us crazy, but dang it, it’s hard to hate the guy. Jon takes it one step further, going so far to call Francoeur his “favorite worst baseball player.” Today Jon released a video about Francoeur, putting all of the glorious and maddening things about Frenchy in context. Like, insanely detailed context. For example, we learn that Francoeur (a) had the greatest start of any rookie slugger in baseball history; and (b) he had the least valuable career of any hitter to every be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated ever.

Like everything else Jon does, it’s brilliant. And hopefully it helps you appreciate — and be driven crazy by — Jeff Francoeur just as much as Jon and I do and are:

Cardinals set a record for pinch-hit homers in a season

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The Cardinals have been all about the home runs this year. They have 201 as a team on the season, leading the National League by 12 over their next closest pursuer. It’s the fourth most they’ve ever hit in franchise history, following their totals of 235, 223 and 214 in 2000, 1998 and 2004, respectively. They have 25 games left in the season.

But more notable than their home run totals is this little freakish stat: they have hit 15 pinch-hit home runs this year, which is a new MLB record. The previous record of 14 was held by the 2001 Giants and the 2001 Diamondbacks. Matt Carpenter‘s pinch-hit job in their come-from-behind victory over the Pirates last night broke the record.

Hitting pinch-hit homers is not a replicable skill — and using ringers like Matt Carpenter as a pinch-hitter isn’t exactly the same thing as trotting a contact specialist like Lenny Harris or Manny Mota out there — but it’s still pretty cool. Pinch-hit homers are fun and exciting. At least if you’re rooting for the team doing the pinch-hitting.