MLB should retire Roberto Clemente's number

Roberto Clemente waves to the crowd after collecting his 3,000th hit. Morris Berman/MLB Photos/Getty Images

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The rows of plantings sway in the prevailing wind here, not far from where Roberto Clemente was born and raised by his parents, and helped his father harvest in the fields.

Clemente's spirit hovers over the island here, and over Pittsburgh and other distant places, with his name attached to parks and schools. The island of Puerto Rico has produced other Hall of Famers, like Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Alomar, and many other distinguished players, including Carlos Beltran, Benito Santiago, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado, Joey Cora and Alex Cora. But Clemente will always be regarded as pre-eminent among players of his era and of Latin America, because of how well he played, collecting 3,000 hits in his career, but also because of the standard of bravery and grace he established.

Clemente died Dec. 31, 1972, when the plane in which he rode -- with relief supplies for Nicaragua earthquake victims -- crashed into the waters just off San Juan shortly after takeoff.

"For me, what he did off the field represents more than his accomplishments on the field," said Alex Cora. "The word that comes to mind when I hear his name is courageous."

This is why the time has come for Major League Baseball to honor Clemente in the way that it did Jackie Robinson, and retire Clemente's No. 21, for all teams and for all time.

In keeping with the Robinson precedent, an appropriate day could occur in 2017, two days after the 20th anniversary of when Jackie Robinson's number was retired.

Now that Jackie Robinson Day is woven into the fabric of Major League Baseball as much as the Opening Day, or the All-Star Game, it's easy to forget that the response from players within the sport was somewhat tentative in the year No. 42 was retired, in 1997. Players had the option of wearing No. 42 on that day, and some did, and others didn't.

But at Shea Stadium, where the Mets played host to the Dodgers, the spirit of baseball's gesture resonated immediately, and deeply. In a mid-game ceremony, President Bill Clinton spoke, as Claire Smith wrote in the New York Times. From her piece:

Mr. Clinton, using walking canes because of a knee injury, said: "It's hard to believe that it was 50 years ago that a 28-year-old rookie changed the face of baseball and the face of America forever. Jackie Robinson scored the go-ahead run that day; we've all been trying to catch up ever since."

The President also called for more progress toward racial equality, and called on the boardrooms of baseball and America to adhere to the ideals of equality established by Robinson. "If Jackie Robinson were here today," Mr. Clinton said, "he would say we have done a lot of good in the last 50 years, but we could do a lot better."

With the benefit of time and greater perspective, it can be said that the choice of commissioner Bud Selig to retire No. 42 in honor of Robinson may have been the best decision he made in his time in office. Selig did the right thing, with lasting effect, and now his successor, Rob Manfred, has a similar opportunity with Clemente, in what would be an important gesture for the whole sport, for the enormous number of Hispanic players in professional baseball.