Pirates don No. 21 to honor 'The Great One' 

September 10th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- The words are clearly visible in the tunnel stretching from the service level of PNC Park to the home dugout, white and gold on a black background. Before every game, the Pirates see the words of Roberto Clemente: “When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on earth.”

On Wednesday night, the Pirates couldn’t have been prouder to put on Clemente’s uniform.

For the first time since Clemente’s number was retired in 1973 following his tragic death on Dec. 31, 1972, a Pirates player took the field wearing No. 21. Everyone did, in fact. Every person on Pittsburgh’s roster and coaching staff donned a white No. 21 jersey in the Bucs’ 8-1 loss to the White Sox on Roberto Clemente Day.

"I think we 100 percent made a statement. The fact of being able to honor Clemente, seeing all the 21s out there and being able to make a statement -- not only in Pittsburgh but in Puerto Rico and for baseball -- this is a monumental step for our organization being able to honor the Clemente family,” manager Derek Shelton said. “I think we made a really big step forward, and it was something very cool to be a part of. Obviously, the game didn't end up the way we wanted, but tonight was a monumental night."

Indeed, the iconic Clemente’s No. 21 was all over the ballpark as Major League Baseball celebrated the life and legacy of Clemente and his wife, Vera. It was painted on the back of the mound in black and gold. It was stenciled into right field, where knelt and bowed his head just before first pitch.

And for the first time, it was on the back of every Pirates player.

“He’s our Jackie Robinson. He’s our idol,” Polanco said, referencing Clemente’s status as a trailblazing star for Latin American players like himself. “You’ll never see somebody like that again. For me, he was The Great One. His legacy will be alive forever. Forever. The next generation will talk about that always, and the next and the next. There’s always going to be people talking about Clemente because of how great he was.”

Of course, it was not just Clemente’s Hall of Fame ability that made him a legend. It wasn’t just his 3,000-hit career, his range in the outfield or his cannon of an arm, either. It was his extraordinary charitable work off the field, his giving spirit and his willingness to stand up for the things he believed to be right.

“It's not just what he did on the field and the fact that he had one of the coolest finishes to a swing of anybody, with the back leg up, or that the arm was stronger than just about anybody in the game. It's what he did off the field, how he gave, and that's something that's extremely important,” Shelton said. “I want to make sure that messaging goes down, not only for the guys in our clubhouse, but to their kids and so on, and it's extremely important. And it's why today's so important."

The Pirates did their best to carry on that part of Clemente’s legacy on Wednesday as well, although the coronavirus pandemic prevented their typical team-wide visits to schools, non-profits and other community organizations. They hosted a drive-through food distribution event with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank on Wednesday that served 500 families.

Among other activities, they also hosted a meal and mask distribution at the Latino Community Center, supported local small businesses and non-profits affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, gifted New Pittsburgh Courier subscriptions to local libraries, purchased food service and sanitation supplies for the Light of Life Rescue Mission and delivered gift cards to fire stations and frontline workers. In the coming days, the team will auction off its No. 21 jerseys to benefit the Roberto Clemente Foundation and Pirates Charities.

“Roberto Clemente, the player, is one of the greatest players of all time,” Shelton said. “Roberto Clemente, the humanitarian, was probably the greatest humanitarian in the history of our sport, and it's why the award is named after him.”

, the Pirates’ nominee for this year’s Roberto Clemente Award, accepted his award from Pirates chairman Bob Nutting before first pitch, when both teams lined up on the field. Players from both teams turned to applaud Bell before observing a moment of silence for Vera, who passed away in November.

Throughout Major League Baseball, Puerto Rican players and others followed the Pirates’ lead and wore No. 21 to honor Clemente on the day named for him. The Pirates added “21” patches to their batting helmets and sported gold sweatbands. Several players and coaches, including Shelton and third-base coach Joey Cora, put on specially made cleats bearing Clemente’s image and number.

“To be able to wear his number, a number that’s retired, here at PNC in Pittsburgh, it’s unbelievable,” said Pirates starter , who allowed seven runs in 5 1/3 innings Wednesday. “Wish things would’ve [gone] a little differently to honor the number better, but it was still an honor to wear that number.”

Shelton said he hopes this becomes an annual tradition, a way to continue conversations about the impact of Clemente the player and Clemente the humanitarian.

There are many who believe it would be even more meaningful to retire Clemente’s No. 21 throughout MLB, the same way Robinson’s No. 42 is retired and worn once a year by everyone in the league. Bell called the Pirates’ celebration on Wednesday “a very good start.” Luis Clemente, one of Roberto and Vera’s three sons, similarly said the conversations are “moving in the right direction.”

Cora, a native of Puerto Rico, said the number was already “retired in our hearts.” But if it’s not officially retired in 2020, how about in ‘21?

“I want to see 21 retired. He deserves that. I’m thankful and grateful to wear it tonight because it’s special,” Polanco said. “We’re going to wear it tonight. We’re going to be thankful, grateful, and I hope they retire it. I hope the No. 21 is retired around baseball.”