21. A number that signifies complete freedom for young people, the final breaking of the leash and new beginnings. For Pittsburgh Pirates devotees and baseball addicts, it’s a bittersweet reminder of one of the game’s true heroes. Roberto Clemente died on December 31st, 1972 in a plane crash delivering aid to Nicaragua, who were the victims of an earthquake. He was 38 years old. Like St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial, Clemente’s greatness reached outside the game. He was a knight, someone who cared more about others than himself, a lesson that should be taught in a manual to every rookie in the game today.
All 30 MLB teams honored Clemente on Wednesday. His #21 will be mowed into every field and jerseys will carry it as well. Every game will have a special nod to the player who signified charity, love and passion inside the Steel City for 18 seasons. While he was one of the best off the field, Clemente was quite good on it. He was a 12 time All Star and a 12 time winner of the gold glove in right field. He won the MVP in 1966 and finished in the top 10 in voting 8 other times. He collected over 200 hits and hit over .350 twice in his career, finishing with a lifetime batting average of .317 and an OPS of .834. If you want to go with WAR, Clemente’s cumulative WAR was 94.5 over his career. All the while, he also led the league in smiles, something that so many ballplayers forget to do these days.
The Roberto Clemente award is what brings out teams and players tonight in honoring the ballplayer. The Cardinals nominee is their ace pitcher, Adam Wainwright. A man who stops at nothing in helping his community and team grow in ways previously thought impossible. Wainwright started a fantasy football league that donates all of its funds to charity. Throughout every season, Wainwright goes to area hospitals seeing kids and meeting with families. He takes what Clemente did very seriously. When you wear a jersey for a city, the reach it provides one person with is remarkable. Carlos Beltran, a native of Puerto Rico as well, won the award in 2013.
Many people don’t know about the remarkable story that connects Pirates’ second baseman Neil Walker to Clemente. Walker’s dad was going to get on that plane with Clemente and the man told Walker’s dad to stay and enjoy the party. Due to that advice, he went on to have a family and four children, including the current Pirates second baseman. In an instant, Roberto Clemente showed how one small bit of advice can extend a life.
He died doing what he loved. Showing support, care and truly helping his hometown in Puerto Rico as well as other Latin American countries, full of people who drastically needed the supplies he was delivering. He was taken too soon but didn’t die in vain. Many baseball players and human beings around the globe have taken his acts of kindness and pushed it further. That’s where the award comes from. The award is given to the player that “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team”. Fans and the media vote on the award, and you can place your vote right here.
I never got to watch the man play baseball but, like Bob Gibson and Stan Musial, Clemente is at the top of my list of people to travel back in time to watch play once I find a time machine. He was truly one of the best players to ever step on a baseball field and also one of the game’s most legendary humanitarians. His influence will be felt for decades. This award is a way to honor and remember one of the game’s “good guys”.