No, we do not need to retire Roberto Clemente’s number across baseball

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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.