Remembering Roberto Clemente
By Ryan Simpson
The first time I read about Roberto Clemente was in the first grade. I picked up a book called Baseball’s Best 101 by Derek Gentile which gave me a look into baseball’s history for maybe the first time in my life. Clemente was listed as the 33rd best player of all-time by Gentile and this is where I learned about the wonder that was Clemente. His stats blew me away: career .317 hitter, 12 Gold Glove awards and of course 3000 hits. Eight-year-old me was in awe. I needed to learn more about this guy.
Today is my 24th birthday and I am still learning about Clemente. I still pull up his baseball-reference page or type his name into YouTube when I am bored. Just to give some more stats for those who have not looked recently: 18 years in the MLB, 94.8 WAR (37th all-time and 6th all-time by a RF), 240 HRs, 1305 RBIs, OPS+ of 130, 255 OF assists (most by a RF in the live-ball era), 204 total zone runs as a RF (most all-time), 15x All-Star, 2x World Series Champion, 1966 NL MVP and 1971 World Series MVP. In my opinion, he’s a top 15 outfielder all time EASILY. I obviously have only watched video of Clemente playing, but there is something special about watching him play the game. As he famously said, “when I was a kid, I was born to be a baseball player. This is something that the more I think about and I am convinced that God wanted me to play baseball.”
Every year, the MLB celebrates Roberto Clemente Day which was “established by Major League Baseball to honor the legacy of the Hall of Famer and 15-time All-Star who died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 while attempting to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua” (MLB). Clemente’s untimely death at the age of 38 shook not just baseball, but the world. He was a national hero to Latin Americans; he was almost more than a hero and more of a deity.
This year’s Clemente day is different. There will not be thousands of Pirate fans and baseball fans donning “21” across ballparks. This year the players are getting involved. Much like on Jackie Robinson Day where players wear “42” to pay tribute to Jackie’s legacy, the MLB has allowed Puerto Rican players to wear Clemente’s “21” as the jersey numbers while also giving all players an option to wear a patch with the number. This is major progress in my mind as Clemente deserves just as much recognition for his contributions to the game of baseball as Jackie. Clemente was the first Latin born player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 after the BBWAA waived its standard voting process. In 2016, the Society of American Baseball Research found that 27.4% of players in the MLB were Latino with an even higher mark of 28.5% in 2009 (SABR).
Clemente’s impact is not limited to Pittsburgh or Latin Americans either; Michael Lorenzen of the Reds changed his number from 50 to 21 after his rookie campaign to honor Clemente. Lorenzen traveled to Puerto Rico with Unlimited Potential Inc. where his knowledge about Clemente the player and the man grew; “there’s a reason before it, I need to wear it with a lot of respect and pride. It’s very easy to put it on and be grateful for each time I get to put it on (Cincinnati.com).”
That is what Clemente represented on and off the field: respect and pride. When the Pirates walk to the dugout in PNC Park, they have to walk under a sign that has this Clemente quote: “when I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on Earth.” On this Clemente Day, watch a video of him making a sliding catch or read one of the many articles about him. Then you can watch the Pirates honor his legacy, as every player and staff member will be donning number 21.