- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

While watching the Italian team work out in Florida before the start of the World Baseball Classic, I was struck by the sight of something you don’t see in Major League Baseball anymore.

Number 42.

It’s been nine years since baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s 42 during a ceremony to honor the 50th anniversary of his breaking the game’s color barrier. Save for its display at ballparks around the country among each team’s retired numbers — and on the back of the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, the only active player who wore 42 before 1997 — the number is not a sight you see at major league games.

If it were up to supporters of Roberto Clemente, we wouldn’t be seeing number 21 on the field, either. It would be up there right next to Robinson’s 42.

But there is hardly universal support for that honor.

Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s daughter, told the New York Daily News she doesn’t believe it is appropriate to present the same honor to Clemente that baseball has for her father.

“To my understanding, the purpose of retiring my father’s number is that what he did changed all of baseball, not only for African-Americans but also for Latinos, so I think that purpose has been met,” she said. “When you start retiring numbers across the board, for all different groups, you’re kind of diluting the original purpose.”

She’s right, but it’s a touchy subject for baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig to have to deal with, particularly at a time when baseball has been reaching out to the Latin baseball community. Last year, baseball unveiled “Latino Legends,” the all-time Latin baseball team named to make up for the embarrassing lack of Latin players on the 1999 All-Century team. Now, a Hall of Fame traveling “Baseball! Beisbol!” exhibit honors the contributions of Latin ballplayers.

The controversy could come to a head at this July’s All-Star Game in Pittsburgh — which will pretty much be a Roberto Clemente festival — and the call will be strong from baseball fans there and the Clemente family to retire number 21 in all major league ballparks around the country.

“My father was the 87th Latino to be in the major leagues, but he was the first one … to be able to speak up and become an activist against prejudice, not only in baseball but also in society, and that took a lot to be able to do that,” Roberto Clemente, Jr., said at a press conference to announce the traveling exhibit.

Juan Marichal, who was also at the press conference, said Clemente “also should be recognized by [every] baseball player in the world.”

He’s right, too.

But retiring Clemente’s 21 in major league ballparks won’t accomplish that, and frankly is not the best way to honor the memory of Clemente, the great Hall of Fame outfielder who was a 12-time All-Star, 12-time Gold Glove winner and four-time batting champion. He did not do what Jackie Robinson did, and his place in history is not the same. So neither should the commemoration be the same.

The way to honor Roberto Clemente is right before our eyes — the World Baseball Classic.

Retire Clemente’s 21 from play in the tournament. Have all the participating teams agree no one will wear the number during the WBC, and have 21 on display at all the ballparks around the world that play host to WBC games — which this year would have been in Japan, Puerto Rico and the United States.

That would fulfill Marichal’s goals to have Clemente recognized by every baseball player in the world.

It also would bring international attention to continuing Clemente’s work at Roberto Clemente Sports City, the sports complex in Puerto Rico that offers recreation and learning opportunities to thousands of children.

What better way to honor the Puerto Rico native, a man who became a star in America and died tragically at 38 on Dec. 31, 1972, in a plane crash while trying to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua?

The World Baseball Classic is scheduled to be played in 2009, and then every four years after that. To honor the Clemente legacy, which crossed borders, at this international event will be a worthy reminder of what this ballplayer and humanitarian stood for.

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