Bucs will wear Roberto's No. 21 tonight

September 8th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Shortly after Derek Shelton became the Pirates’ manager, he approached club chairman Bob Nutting and president Travis Williams with an idea. He wanted to find a new way to honor the legacy of Roberto Clemente, the Hall of Fame player and humanitarian, and he wanted it to mean something.

The Pirates unveiled the plan on Wednesday: This Roberto Clemente Day, they will all wear Clemente’s No. 21 for their contest against the White Sox, live on MLB.TV at 7:05 p.m. ET.

The Pirates will honor Clemente by wearing his number for the first time since it was retired in 1973 following his tragic death on Dec. 31, 1972. Every Pittsburgh player and coach will don the Pirates’ home white Nike jerseys with the No. 21 on the back as the Bucs host the White Sox at PNC Park on Tuesday.

“I think this is an exciting day for the Pirates organization, for the city of Pittsburgh and for the island of Puerto Rico,” Shelton said. “It’s going to be an historic day. Cannot tell you how excited I am.”

MLB has observed Roberto Clemente Day every September since 2002, recognizing his impact on the game and highlighting a current player from each team who continues to exemplify Clemente’s philanthropic efforts. Clemente died when a plane he was on carrying relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua crashed. “The Great One” is revered in Pittsburgh and his native Puerto Rico not just for his play on the field, but for the way he constantly sought ways to give back to both communities.

What better day to celebrate Clemente in Pittsburgh than Major League Baseball’s annual recognition of Clemente’s life and legacy? And what better way to do it than wearing the number so closely tied to him?

The meaning of the moment was clearly not lost on Joey Cora. The Pirates’ third-base coach said Shelton spoke about making this initiative happen the first time they met. On Wednesday, Cora spoke excitedly about the personal significance of wearing a No. 21 Pirates jersey and explained the importance of the moment for his native Puerto Rico.

“I’m telling you, it’s amazing how big it is in Puerto Rico what’s going to happen on Sept. 9. They’re gonna show the game on TV. Puerto Rico’s going to be wearing No. 21 [on] Sept. 9,” Cora said. “I think it’s a bigger deal than what we thought it was going to be. The fact that I’m Puerto Rican, I’m going to be wearing No. 21 that day, it comes with a huge responsibility. I’m honored, humbled to be wearing No. 21 as a Puerto Rican. The fact that all my teammates, all the coaching staff, the manager, they’re going to be wearing No. 21 with pride, the way it is, it’s amazing.

“I cannot tell you how proud I am and how big a deal it is for me and my family and my Puerto Rican fellows that we are going to be wearing No. 21 on Clemente Day.”

Shelton said the Pirates received word last month from Major League Baseball that they would all be able to wear Clemente’s retired number. When he found out, he pulled Cora aside and told him, simply, “We got it done.”

“As a Puerto Rican, it’s gonna be something that, man, I don’t know if I can handle that moment. It’s going to be unbelievable,” Cora said. “I’m getting goosebumps right now. Wearing No. 21, as a Puerto Rican, as a Pirate, it means a lot. … To honor Roberto Clemente, not only the player but the person, it’s a huge, huge honor to be wearing No. 21.”

Each year, the Pirates aim to reflect Clemente’s charitable and generous spirit by volunteering in the Pittsburgh community and making donations to local schools and nonprofit organizations. Players, coaches and staff all participate in the club’s Roberto Clemente Day of Giving.

Soon after the Pirates’ Clemente Day game against the White Sox on Wednesday, the club will place the jerseys up for auction, giving fans a chance to bid on the game-worn uniforms. All proceeds will benefit the Clemente Foundation and Pirates Charities.

“This is the beginning of something really important, the beginning of something really relevant [to] the legacy of our family, our father and mother, who actually kept that legacy going for so many years,” said Clemente's son, Luis, pausing to note the number of people attending the Zoom press conference, too appropriate to be a coincidence: 21. “We are very, very happy about Sept. 9, because it is historical. It is historical."

Shelton said he hopes to make this a part of every Roberto Clemente Day going forward. Luis Clemente said the family has been working with MLB to find new ways to honor his father’s legacy. One method suggested by many people over the years: Retire the No. 21 throughout Major League Baseball.

“That will be great, don’t get me wrong. But I think No. 21, especially here in Pittsburgh, especially the Puerto Rican players and in Puerto Rico, No. 21 is retired in our hearts,” Cora said. “Everybody knows what No. 21 means for us. They know it’s Roberto Clemente. When they see No. 21 in Pittsburgh, they know what that means. You don’t have to even mention Roberto Clemente. People know what 21 means.

“The number has been retired, in our spirits and in our hearts. That’s what is most important: It needs to be retired in our hearts. We’ll see what happens in the future with that, with No. 21. Wearing it Sept. 9 is going to be a huge, huge honor, and I’m looking forward to it.”