31 January 2006

Clemente and Two Robinsons

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and daughter of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, Sharon Robinson, have come out against the movement to retire Roberto Clemente’s 21, as was done by Major League Baseball with Jackie’s 42.

First of all, Frank Robinson is a Grade-A Hall of Famer and despite his amazing statistics, a case could be made that he is still largely under-rated. In addition, he played against Clemente (most notably in the 1971 World Series) and with him on All Star Teams. Frank even played baseball in Puerto Rico. There seemed to be between Frank and Clemente the mutual respect and distant acceptance of competitive athletes who can acknowledge each other’s attributes. So for Frank to come out against this signal honor bears some weight.

The gist of his argument is that by retiring #21, we open the floodgates to retiring other numbers, unleashing a scenario of “where will it end?” Frank is entitled to his opinion (he’s never been shy about sharing it) and though he is often right, in this case he is wrong. That Jackie Robinson was a significant athlete in American history is without question; that he is the only ballplayer to have faced racial and social barriers, and made an impact on his people, is just not true.

Roberto Clemente was black, so he owed a debt to Jackie’s quiet courage. But Clemente was also Puerto Rican, thus making him in the eyes of the average American a “two-striker”. That his command of English was poor and thus the object of open ridicule goes deeply to the heart of Clemente’s aloofness, but he never let it stop him from stating what he felt…much like Frank does.

Jackie Robinson changed the face of baseball, but Clemente changed the face of the baseball player. There are many heroes on the diamond, from Wagner, Lajoie and Young to the current crop of Jeter, Clemens and Griffey, Jr. But Clemente was a hero to three nations, a man who laid down his life helping others. In that sense, maybe the fighter pilot exploits of Ted Williams or the spying adventures of Moe Berg could match; however, neither man carried the fervent hopes and aspirations of so many people as Clemente did. Maybe only Jackie did.

As for Sharon, she is a daughter defending her father’s memory; nothing wrong with that. But note this: Clemente left on his final act of humanity despite having three little boys. He weighed the needs of earthquake-ravaged people versus his own safety and chose to take the risk. His three sons lost a father in service to others. Shouldn’t their views as children of a worthy-to-be-honored player also be taken into account?

As for the argument that by honoring Clemente the honor done to Jackie is somehow diminished, that argument is simply empty. Jackie was first, deserved to be first and nobody can ever take that from him. Nobody should. But to think that by honoring someone who was also a first, an exemplary athlete, model citizen and hero will detract from another honoree is fatuous. The only strong cases in baseball for such an honor are Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Nobody else in baseball comes close to these two men in terms of athletic excellence and social importance. “Denying” the honor to others is thus not possible. Those who believe so are ignoring the facts and undermining the best tribute Major League Baseball or any sports organization has to offer.

Let’s retire Roberto Clemente’s number 21, at the 2006 All Star Game, in Pittsburgh. It is the right thing to do.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

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