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Every Pirate will wear 21 in honor of Clemente on Sept. 9

By Marcos Mejías Ortiz

Special to The Star

Almost half a century after his physical disappearance, Roberto Clemente’s number 21 will be back on the field to honor one of the best players in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise and Major League Baseball.

Next Wednesday, Sept. 9, on Roberto Clemente Day, all Pirates players and coaches will use the number 21 that Clemente wore for 18 seasons with the organization when the team plays the Chicago White Sox.

Clemente, who died on Dec. 31, 1972 in a plane crash when he was going to help the victims of the earthquake in Nicaragua, became one of the most respected figures in Pittsburgh -- and in professional baseball -- for his work on and off the field. Since 2002, Major League Baseball (MLB) has been celebrating Roberto Clemente Day in the month of September, but this year will be unique.

Thanks to the initiative of Pirates manager Derek Shelton, all team members will wear the number 21 on Sept. 9 in honor of Clemente. The game between the Pirates and the Chicago White Sox will be broadcast in Puerto Rico by WAPA Deportes (4.2) starting at 7:05 p.m.

“The first time I came in for an interview [for the Pirates manager position], the number 21 was everywhere. Clemente was a complete player. My dad told me how humanitarian he was, what he did,” Shelton said in a conference via Zoom. “When I was working with the Yankees [in the minors], all Puerto Ricans wanted to wear the number 21. It‘s something I‘ll be very proud of.”

One of the people who will wear the number 21 on his back will be Caguas native and third base coach Joey Cora, who will be the first Puerto Rican to wear number 21 in a Pirates uniform since Clemente did it for the last time on Oct. 11, 1972.

“It means a lot. It’s incredible. Ever since Derek told me this was going to happen, right now it gives me the goosebumps. You see that number everywhere in Pittsburgh. It will be an unforgettable moment,” Cora said with emotion. “I do not know how to explain it. It is a responsibility. Here [in Pittsburgh] everyone knows who Clemente is and number 21. It’s something that has impressed me about this city.”

The other Puerto Rican with the Pirates is Yacksel Ríos, a pitcher from Gurabo who is part of the 40-man roster but has only appeared in three games so far this season.

Shelton’s idea had the blessing of Clemente’s children, who hope that the initiative will serve as a push to continue the “Retire 21” movement that seeks to retire the number in the Major Leagues, as was done with Jackie Robinson’s number 42.

“We have never been involved [in the movement]. It is the moment to retire the number,” said Luis Roberto Clemente. “For the first time I will be pushing for the number to be retired. It would be an initial step for that conversation.”

The initiative to use Clemente’s number 21 is only for this year, but it is not being ruled out that it will be repeated in the future and even more teams will take up the idea.

“Initially, we talked about doing it this year. We hope this grows because we have great feelings for number 21,” said Shelton, who is making his managerial debut in the majors this season. “I‘m excited for the Major Leagues and that the Clemente family allowed this to be done.”

Puerto Rico baseball legends did not hide the pride they felt in the honoring of Clemente, the only Puerto Rican to achieve the 3,000 hit mark in the majors.

“Clemente number 21 represents a responsibility. He is a person who opened doors,” said former first baseman Carlos Delgado, the historical leader in home runs among Puerto Rican major leaguers.

Former second baseman Carlos Baerga added that: “It is going to be a super special day. I will be super happy. I know it will be special for Joey.”

It will undoubtedly be a special day for Cora, who is already counting down the days until he wears number 21 in honor of Clemente.

“One of the most important people, on and off the field in the Major Leagues is Roberto Clemente,” Cora said. “This is monumental. It is something very special. Puerto Rico will be more proud of Roberto Clemente. I feel very proud to be part of this organization and to be part of this historic moment for baseball in Puerto Rico.”

Clemente was a two-time World Series champion, earning Most Valuable Player honors in the 1971 championship. Added to this are his 15 All-Star Game selections, the National League Most Valuable Award in 1966 and his 12 Gold Gloves. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973, months after his death.