Tuesday, July 25, 2006

21 Gun Salute

There is a movement afoot to try and get the number of Roberto Clemente (21) retired by baseball. Baseball has only afforded that tribute to only one player. Jackie Robinson's number (42) was retired by every team in the major leagues a few years ago. Players who were wearing the number were allowed to keep it and at this point, Mariano Rivera is the last active player who will wear the number. It seemed an appropriate way to honor a man who had meant so much to the game and had put up with so much abuse just to share the playing field with his teammates.

Roberto Clemente was a great right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He collected exactly 3,000 hits in his career. He won four batting titles and has a .317 lifetime batting average. Without a doubt he was one of the best players of the sixties and is probably the greatest Hispanic ballplayer of all time (Arod may hold that title by the end of his playing days). He died tragically in a plane crash while trying to deliver humanitarian aid to the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. While he had a great career and died in a very heroic manner, I don' think that he is deserving of having his number retired by major league baseball.

The arguments for baseball bestowing this honor on Clemente, while noble, do not seem to add up for me. Arguments range from, "he is the best Latino ballplayer ever", to "he died in a tragic manner", to "Hispanics represent a big percentage of the majors and they should have one of their own honored". Once again, all are valid statements, but to have his number retired by baseball, I believe would diminish the honor given to Jackie Robinson. Clemente was obviously a very caring human being along with being a great baseball player. However, there have been many other examples of great baseball players who were great human beings as well. Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig were all great ballplayers and from all reports, fine people as well. There is no movement to get their numbers retired by baseball.

Jackie Robinson's place in baseball history is secure because of the singular burden that he had to bear. His number wasn't retired because he was the best african-american player of al time, or because he was a fine humanitarian. His number was retired because he and he alone broke the color barrier in baseball. There would have been no Roberto Clemente if not for Jackie Robinson. Hispanic players were in the majors before Clemente got there and many more would follow. He was not a pioneer in the way that Robinson was. Jackie Robinson was a great experiment by baseball. If he would have failed, if he would have lashed out fans or opposing players for verbally abusing him, the experiment would have been deemed a failure and major league baseball could have gone back to being the lily white sport it was before he got there.

I don't want to make it seem like I'm belittling the qualifications of Roberto Clemente. He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor that the nation can bestow on a civilian. There are statues, bridges and stadiums that bear his name and likeness. Major League Baseball presents the Roberto Clemente award annually to the player who best follows Clemente's spirit of humanitarian work. He is remembered and honored as few sports figures ever have been. And he is definitely deserving of that praise.

Baseball took the step of retiring Jackie Robinson's number to acknowledge, not only the extraordinary man who wore it, but also to honor the hundreds of men who didn't get a chance to play the game. The men who were kept out of competing in the Major Leagues because of racism and ignorance. I'm not sure that there's a big enough statement that baseball can make to try and atone for that egregious error (the special Hall of Fame vote this year is another big step), but their efforts are ongoing. Roberto Clemente was without a doubt a special player, and people will cite the increase of Hispanic players in the Majors as evidence of his legacy. That would do a disservice to the legacies of all the other great Hispanic players who played along side Clemente. Did players like Juan Marichal, Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Oliva, The Alou brothers, Tony Perez, Rod Carew or Luis Tiant, have nothing to do with the influencing of a generation of Hispanic players? Were they so dwarfed by Clemente that no one looked up to them? Didn't one kid from Cuba consider Luis Tiant his hero? Didn't one kid from Panama think that Rod Carew was the best? Wasn't there one boy from Venezuela who wanted to grow up to be like Luis Aparicio?

Roberto Clemente is rightfully respected, honored and even revered by the fans of baseball, but we shouldn't confuse a valiant death off the field with what was accomplished on the field. Clemente place is in the pantheon of great outfielders, but the singular tribute of having your number retired by baseball should remain with the player who made the singular sacrifice to play the game. Being the first and only player with his number retired should remain Jackie's honor alone, just as he was the first and only the day he took the field and changed history with the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1947.



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