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.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.