PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) – This probably won’t play well in Pittsburgh — and I’m aware of that. I’m OK with that. I’m a born and raised Pittsburgher and will probably die here, but I feel more than comfortable saying this: Roberto Clemente’s number doesn’t need to be retired throughout Major League Baseball. I understand all the man stood for; I know all he did and get his legacy. He’s one of the most generous beings to ever walk this Earth and some symbolic, posthumous gesture will never change any of that.
It would be fine if Clemente’s number was never worn again, but I don’t feel the need to latch on to some big push to get it done.
You see, a major groundswell has begun again to get the No. 21 retired throughout the league, spearheaded by Clemente’s family. Some want to do the same thing that was done to No. 42 — the lone number retired throughout Major League Baseball. It was worn by Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the big leagues, and retired throughout MLB in 1997.
Recently, Pirates broadcaster and former Clemente teammate and close friend Steve Blass was on 93.7 The Fan speaking with reverence of Clemente and also advocating a league-wide retirement of the No. 21 jersey.
“He was such a big influence on all the Latino players that have come and passed,” Blass said on the “Starkey and Mueller Show.” “Maybe not all of them, but a good percentage of them. And now, as the population of Latino players overtakes the number of African-American players, it becomes more of an idea that I can very much accept.”
But I ask this fundamental question: If Major League Baseball were to retire 21, where would it end? Certainly, Clemente’s contributions as a humanitarian seem other-worldly, but would it bring into focus fans who feel like other men should have their uniform number retired league wide?
Clemente’s impact on baseball isn’t lost on me. It isn’t lost on commissioner Rob Manfred, either. Recently while Manfred was giving his sort-of state-of-the-league address and Q&A session, he was asked about the Clemente issue. He cited The Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
The commish, as part of his answer, spoke about how The Roberto Clemente Award is the most important award Major League Baseball has. That’s pretty heavy stuff coming from Manfred and I believe he was 100 percent sincere when he spoke those words.
Just like I am 100 percent sincere when I say this: I understand Clemente’s legacy and know how wonderful of a man he was. I’m from Pittsburgh and was schooled deeply in this from the time I was little. Those Clemente jerseys I see on fans at Pirates games and that 21-foot Clemente Wall inside and statue just outside PNC Park make me stop and think about the man each time I lay my eyes on them.
That said, retiring his number won’t make me think any differently or have me comprehend more deeply his incredible life.
He was an Earthly saint. And I don’t need some league-wide jersey retirement to validate that.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weekdays from 5:40 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.