21 October 2005

Let's Retire Roberto Clemente's #21

The Jenius was 4 years old when he first saw him play, swinging off his front foot and running like a panther. Back in the days when there was only one baseball game a week, catching the Pirates on TV was like catching a lunar eclipse. But in 1971, the Pirates were in the World Series, against the mighty Baltimore Orioles, and suddenly, every game was a Roberto Clemente game.

Playing in front of a national audience, facing a team with four--four!--20-game winning pitchers, Clemente and the Pirates were considered an easy opponent for the Orioles. My Dad, the only Puerto Rican in his Air Force Personnel office, was the sole Pirates supporter. Against the likes of future Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer, with Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Boog Powell and Paul Blair thrown in for good measure, my Dad's reply never changed: "Yes, but we have Clemente."

In 1971, the concept of the World Series MVP was just taking off, the award part of a package that included a car. By Game 4, Roger Angell, one of the greatest baseball writers of all time, wrote that the car should be given to Clemente, for he "...played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before—throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of absolute perfection...as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field."

At the time, the Pirates were tied 2-2 with the Orioles. But the only thing people could talk about was Roberto.

Our Roberto.

He hit line drives like lasers. At the age of 37, he ran the bases like a racehorse, digging in fiercely as he rounded the bases, ending in a slide so beautiful it would take your breath away. He fielded flawlessly and at one point unleashed a throw so powerful, so numbingly accurate, it was more art that sport.

Before Game 5, the men in my Dad's office could only say: "You were right. You guys have Clemente."

The Pirates and Orioles split the next two games and that most exciting of sporting events, a Game 7 in the World Series, was set. The Jenius could barely sit still. The first run of the game was a Clemente home run, a signature line drive off of a wicked pitch, Clemente's second home run of the Series and extending his World Series hitting streak to 14 straight games.

In a breathless game, the Pirates won 2-1 and were World Champions. Clemente was the Series MVP and in typical fashion, his first words to the national audience were directed to his parents. In Spanish.

Roberto was Ours in every way.

The next season, despite injuries, he achieved a rare goal: 3,000 hits. In the playoffs, facing what would become The Big Red Machine, the Pirates lost in the deciding game because of a passed ball. Clemente walked off the field and none of us, even through the tears of so painful a loss, could imagine it would be his last game.

Christmas Season. The earthquake in Nicaragua. An effort to secure emergency supplies. Stories of profiteering and violence, even deaths. Clemente, a recent visitor to Nicaragua, steps forward. Told he could be in danger if he tried to stop the profiteering, he replied "They will listen to me."

New Year's Day. The Jenius, a sleepy child in the brilliant sunshine, hears the news: Roberto Clemente's plane had crashed in the ocean, shortly after take-off. My first thought was He's a great swimmer. Only years later did The Jenius find out His wishful thought was actually true. And yet, it didn't matter.

Shortly after midday of 1973, the news: Roberto Clemente--My Roberto Clemente--was dead.

In honor of his career and humanity, Clemente was elected to the Hall of Fame the very next year after his death, the first ballplayer of Hispanic descent to enter Cooperstown. An award was established in his name to annually honor the player who combined on-field excellence with community work. The players themselves consider The Roberto Clemente Award to be one of the greatest honors in baseball.

When Major League Baseball made the brilliant decision of honoring Jackie Robinson by retiring his number 42 from all baseball teams, there was only one more candidate worthy of the same: Our Roberto Clemente.

Next year, the All Star Game will be played in Pittsburgh, Clemente's home for 18 seasons. With an aura that has grown since his death almost 33 years ago, Clemente has transcended the sport and become an icon. A very human one. In the words of Thomas Boswell: "I believe that Roberto Clemente is the patron saint of baseball."

Let's make that July night in Pittsburgh the night Roberto Clemente's number 21 is retired. Please visit this website and sign the petition to make this happen.

"Anytime you have an opportunity to make things better and you don't, then you are wasting your time on this Earth" -- Roberto Clemente

The Jenius Asks For Your Support.

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