Palacios honors childhood icon on 'indescribable' Clemente Day

September 16th, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- has cycled through several warm-up songs, the last two being “One” by Metallica and “Amazing” by Kanye West. With Friday being Roberto Clemente Day, Oviedo went with “Rich Flex” by Drake and 21 Savage, a song with an infectious refrain that was appropriate given the day.

"21, can you do somethin’ for me? Can you hit a lil’ rich flex for me?"

Joshua Palacios, a Puerto Rican right fielder just like Clemente, provided a tribute with his own flavor. With the national flag of Puerto Rico in his right hand and an ear-to-ear smile on his face, Palacios set out toward right field, where Clemente’s No. 21 was spray-painted onto the grass. Upon spotting several Puerto Rican fans in the bleachers atop the Clemente Wall, Palacios played to his crowd and waved the flag with pride.

“That was one of the biggest, energetic, goosebump moments that I had this year,” Palacios said following the Pirates’ 7-5 loss to the Yankees on Friday night at PNC Park. “It’s pretty crazy. Running out there with the flag, you feel the energy, you feel the aura and everything he did for the city and everything he left behind. It was indescribable.”

Palacios, who recorded a single in the loss, hasn’t had a shortage of big, energetic, goosebump-inducing moments this year.

He played in the World Baseball Classic with his younger brother, Richie. He hit a home run against Richie’s Cardinals in their first game against one another at the Major League level. Several weeks later, he hit a go-ahead two-run home run in the ninth inning with Richie watching from the home dugout at Busch Stadium. He hit a walk-off home run against the Phillies on his 28th birthday. He delivered a go-ahead two-run double on the Fourth of July at Dodger Stadium.

This moment, though, is without comparison.

Palacios played for the Blue Jays in 2021 and the Nationals in ‘22, but he didn’t have an opportunity to play on Roberto Clemente Day in either season. He was on Washington’s active roster last year when the day rolled around, but he was stuck on the bench for the entire game. When asked if he intentionally played Palacios in right field given the circumstances, manager Derek Shelton jokingly responded with a question of his own.

“You mean playing the Puerto Rican in right field on Roberto Clemente Day?” Shelton said. “Yeah, there was definitely some purpose to that. He was going to play today, but when [bench coach] Donnie [Kelly] and I talked about it last night, we thought, ‘Yeah, this is how this should go down.’”

Prior to the game, Palacios held and observed several pieces of Clemente memorabilia: a bat, a glove and a jersey. Palacios was surprised by the opportunity, joking that he rubbed the artifacts over himself and tried to see if there were any hits left in the bat.

“It was like touching a holy artifact, something like the Ten Commandments,” Palacios said. “That was pretty sick. I never in my life thought I'd be able to touch one of those bats or touch one of the jerseys. Especially putting the glove on, it was pretty crazy.”

Palacios grew up idolizing Clemente. The kitchen of his childhood home featured the cross, a photo of Jesus and a photo of The Great One. During school, Palacios did book reports and projects centered around Clemente. While he couldn’t quite emulate Clemente’s signature front-footed swing, Palacios has always emulated Clemente’s hustle and his willingness to go all-out on every play.

During Joshua’s childhood, his father, Richard, taught him about Clemente’s legacy as a ballplayer. The “rocket of an arm,” the “crazy power,” the laundry list of accolades and accomplishments. Richard, a ballplayer himself who made it as high as Triple-A, also made sure to teach Joshua about Clemente’s legacy as a humanitarian.

“It was above and beyond,” Palacios said. “He died for people that weren’t even from his island. He just wanted to help people in need. That says everything. The community service was a big thing, and I think that’s a part we need to highlight -- that guys should all take the initiative to do. We all have a platform that we can use to make a lot of change with where we are. There’s stuff that’s bigger than baseball, and that’s probably the thing I love most about Roberto.”

Added team interpreter Stephen Morales, who is Puerto Rican, on Clemente: “He’s an idol, not just with baseball, but sports, in general, in Puerto Rico. He’s a person that you follow. You want to be like him when you grow up, not just as a player, but as a caring person for others and help people, give them a hand when times are tough or they’re going through a tough time. Until his last day, he was trying to help people.”