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MLB's Pirates will honor Roberto Clemente by wearing his number

No one has worn Clemente's No. 21 since 1973 when the Pirates retired his number. "As a Puerto Rican...it's a huge, huge honor," said Pirates third base coach Joey Cora.
Pittsburgh Pirates' outfielder Roberto Clemente in March 1967.
Pittsburgh Pirates' outfielder Roberto Clemente in March 1967.AP file

Major League Baseball and the Pittsburgh Pirates will honor the life and legacy of Roberto Clemente in an unprecedented way.

The Pirates announced Wednesday that all players and coaches will wear Clemente’s No. 21 when the Pirates host the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday Sept. 9 at PNC Park, where there’s a statue honoring him outside the stadium and a bridge named for him beyond the outfield wall.

The MLB has observed Roberto Clemente Day every Sept. 9 since 2002 with players, coaches and front office staff joining together to canvas the community volunteering their time and making charitable donations to local non-profits and schools, the Pirates said in a press release Wednesday.

But this year's will be different as the No. 21 will grace the back of each of the Pirates' jerseys for the game. The Pirates had retired Clemente’s number before the start of the 1973 season.

"Since 1973 the only persons allowed to wear no. 21 in a Pirate uniform would have been any of the three sons. I became the closest to have that honor, but didn't continue to play to reach the Major League level," said Luis Clemente, the second of Clemente’s three sons, in a statement. "History will be made this September 9."

Clemente collected 3,000 hits during his 18-year career while helping the Pirates win a pair of World Series titles. He died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, at age 38 while taking humanitarian aid from his native Puerto Rico to victims of a massive earthquake in Nicaragua.

Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting said in a statement that the team recognizes "what this moment represents for all of us within the organization, the Clemente Family, our fans, and the people of Puerto Rico."

“I’m getting goosebumps right now,” said current Pirates third base coach Joey Cora, a Puerto Rico native and former major leaguer. “Wearing No. 21, as a Puerto Rican, as a Pirate, it means a lot."

"As a Puerto Rican, it’s a little bit more special, obviously. To honor Roberto Clemente, not only the player but the person, it’s a huge, huge honor," said Cora.

Wednesday's plan is limited to this season for now, but the Pirates and the Clementes hope to make it a regular occurrence.

“Our hopes as an organization are that this is something that we’ll do every year,” Pirates Manager Derek Shelton said. “I would like to continue to do it. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to honor Roberto on Roberto Clemente Day.”

It’s a move Clemente’s family and the organization hope is a step toward having Major League Baseball retire his number across all teams as it did with Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 in 1997, a half-century after Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier.

“I feel that this is just the beginning,” said Luis Clemente. “That’s why it’s so important. It’s so exciting that it happened, that it was approved. It is a platform to continue to grow on it. So we’re very happy and thankful to MLB also for this.”

Roberto Clemente Jr. said the family has spoken to MLB about different ways to honor Clemente, with celebrating his number annually. He pointed out a couple of key years that are approaching: Next season is 2021, and 2022 — which marks the 50th anniversary of Clemente’s passing.

“It’s not just retiring (the number) for the sake of retiring it,” Clemente Jr. said. “It is the right thing to do, but it should be done in such a way that it becomes more prestigious with that action."

In the days following Wednesday's game, the No. 21 game-worn jerseys will be placed for auction on pirates.auctions.mlb.com. All proceeds will benefit the Clemente Foundation and Pirates Charities, the Pirates said in a press release.

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The Associated Press contributed.