Pirates wear No. 21 with sense of 'pride'

Bucs players, coaches pay tribute to one of their greats on Roberto Clemente Day

September 16th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- In and around Pittsburgh, Roberto Clemente’s fingerprints are everywhere.

Looking out from the stands at PNC Park, it’s almost a larger-than-life metaphor: Connecting the stomping grounds of the Pirates, where 81 games are played every regular season by Clemente’s team, and the wider, global community contained in downtown Pittsburgh is a beautiful yellow bridge that bears this name.

And that name is also symbolized in one number: No. 21. The Bucs wore that legendary number, which has been retired by the Pirates, for a second year in a row on Wednesday to commemorate Roberto Clemente Day -- a day that will carry on in perpetuity as announced by MLB on Tuesday.

While the Pirates are the only team to wear the No. 21 on Wednesday, 2021 Roberto Clemente Award nominees, Jacob Stallings is this year's Pittsburgh representative, and past winners have the option to wear the number in their respective games on Wednesday. But in Pittsburgh, the sight carries a bit more weight.

“He paved the way here,” outfielder Ben Gamel said. “He’s got bridges and walls, and you name it, named after him. That’s just testimony to who he was as a person, on and off the field. Off the field, he’s just a spectacular human being, so very lucky we get to wear his number.”

Among the group of Pirates who will be able to wear the No. 21 are three members of Puerto Rican descent: catcher Michael Perez, third-base coach Joey Cora and Mike Gonzalez, special assistant to the general manager, cultural initiatives.

Cora became the first to wear the number last season, when the Pirates first sported No. 21 for Roberto Clemente Day, and he wore the legendary jersey once again on Wednesday, this time with Pittsburgh’s own in attendance.

“That was huge, but then, I said, ‘There’s a huge responsibility here,’” Cora said. “It hasn’t been done since 1972, so it was huge. It felt right, though. It’s nice for me to be wearing this No. 21.”

The celebration wasn’t just limited to the on-field happenings, though. The day started with members of the Pirates’ community leading two service initiatives to reflect the great humanitarian that Clemente was.

The first was a facelift of the Brashear High School baseball and softball fields, helping to promote the game beyond PNC Park. That was followed by an update of the involveMINT Food Recycling Center in Hazelwood, Pa., including a brand new supply shed.

“The first thing that jumps out to me is how great of a humanitarian he was,” manager Derek Shelton said. “Obviously, he was one of the best baseball players of all time, but I think he was the greatest humanitarian that our game ever had.”

And although rain lingered around Pittsburgh leading up to the game, the sun eventually broke through to reveal a large “21” in right field, the corner Clemente arguably fielded better than anyone in baseball history.

But as with Clemente’s career, so was the day itself: Bigger than baseball.

“I think our group of guys sees the pride and what this means,” Shelton said. “This is not only for the Pirates. It's the city of Pittsburgh. It's the island of Puerto Rico. This is something that's a lot bigger than us.”