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Kovacevic: Perfect compromise for Clemente

| Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Those of us in favor of retiring Roberto Clemente's No. 21 across Major League Baseball had to know five years ago that it had no chance. It was then, at Pittsburgh's All-Star Game, that Bud Selig presented the Clemente family with the Commissioner's Achievement Award — whatever that is — in Roberto's name and, essentially, quashed momentum building at the time.

But that might be changing.

In what undoubtedly has been my favorite experience of All-Star week, the Clementes told me they are formulating a Plan B, and a wonderful one at that.

I met with Vera Clemente, Roberto's widow, and Luis, one of three sons, Monday at a charity event. Upon sharing with them anew my views on retiring No. 21, Vera tapped her heart.

"I believe in destiny," she said. "I believe it's meant to be."

"But how?" I asked.

Selig was as blunt as can be in his World Series news conference two years ago when he declared that no player will have his number retired across baseball the way Jackie Robinson's No. 42 was in 1997. "Jackie Robinson transcended baseball," Selig said then. "You want to be very careful about retiring numbers. We honor Roberto every chance we get in every other way we can."

Vera began to answer my question when Luis jumped in to mention the plan, which is still in the formative stage but could be brought to baseball's powers before long. Per the plan, Luis said, a player could only wear No. 21 "if he earns it."

So if a Puerto Rican such as the New York Mets' Carlos Beltran asks to wear the number and honor Clemente as many Latino players have done ...

"No," Vera interjected. "He has to earn it."

That's when it resonated: The only players who could wear No. 21 would be those who have won the Roberto Clemente Award, which has been given annually since 1972 — the year of Clemente's death — to players of all 30 teams who best exemplify excellence on and off the field.

It's so perfect, it hurts.

Think about it:

• The main objection generally raised against retiring No. 21 is that Robinson's distinction should remain unique. As Robinson's daughter, Sharon, said five years ago, it would be "diluting the original purpose" to do likewise for anyone else. But the Clementes' Plan B would not replicate Robinson's honor or any other. No. 21 would not be retired universally, just selectively.

• As Vera Clemente pointed out, a player still could wear No. 21 for the right reason, preserving a tradition of honoring the number at all levels. "Many kids, especially in Latin America, have the dream to grow up and wear it. This way they can," she said. This season alone, 17 players in the majors have worn No. 21. Be sure that they aren't all honoring Clemente.

• It's an elegant tie-in with the Roberto Clemente Award, an honor that has become so prominent that MLB now annually celebrates Roberto Clemente Day in every ballpark to present it. Just as Clemente had to earn his way into acceptance, so will these players have to follow in his footsteps, whether the plan involves the winners for all 30 teams or the national winner selected at the end.

"It would be a privilege," Luis said. "You've got to work for it."

Know that the Clementes are working to make this happen in their own understated, first-class way.

The family was here all week accompanying Selig on various charity initiatives. Vera still holds the title of "MLB Goodwill Ambassador," and she showed here that it means more to her than some honorary title. Luis was by her side every step of the trip. Selig, in turn, was introducing them to the various crowds by referring to Roberto as "legendary."

The Clementes and the commissioner could have become enemies, but it's easy to see they are not.

Still, differences remain.

"I know Bud has said retiring the number will never happen, at least not on his watch. I guess Bud's got his reasons," Roberto Jr. said by phone from New York. "People know that my father was not the first Latino, but he was the first Latino superstar. And he was an activist, not only for Latinos but for all minorities. He deserves to have his number recognized. But it's in the hands of the commissioner."

Maybe through this Plan B the Clementes and Selig can find compromise.

They'll have earned it.

Additional Information:

Too many 21s

So far this season, 17 players have worn the No. 21 in a major-league game:

Heath Bell, Padres

Michael Bourn, Astros

Zach Braddock, Brewers

Sean Burroughs, Diamondbacks

Allen Craig, Cardinals

Lucas Duda, Mets

Jeff Francoeur, Royals

Todd Frazier, Reds

Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners

Nick Markakis, Orioles

Jason Marquis, Nationals

Freddy Sanchez, Giants

Andy Sonnanstine, Rays

Hisanori Takahashi, Angels

Wilson Valdez, Phillies

Ty Wigginton, Rockies

Delmon Young, Twins

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