What Roberto Clemente Day means for Blue Jays with Puerto Rican roots

·5 min read

TORONTO — Charlie Montoyo hopes to one day see Roberto Clemente’s No. 21 hanging from all MLB rafters, just like Jackie Robinson’s No. 42.

Montoyo, along with several other Toronto Blue Jays players, wore his Puerto Rican idol’s number on Wednesday as the league celebrated Roberto Clemente Day, 48 years after his death.

Roberto Clemente is remembered not only for his excellence on the field, but for his kind, selfless and tireless approach to helping others. This legacy reverberates not only among Puerto Ricans like the Blue Jays manager, but the entire baseball community.

"One of his quotes is ‘anytime you have a chance to make a difference in this life and you don’t, you’re wasting your time on Earth,'" Montoyo said before the Blue Jays’ win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday. "So, I go by that. I love that quote. And that’s what he used to do."

Roberto Clemente is remembered not only for his excellence on the field, but for his kind, selfless and tireless approach to helping others. (Getty)
Roberto Clemente is remembered not only for his excellence on the field, but for his kind, selfless and tireless approach to helping others. (Getty)

Clemente was loyal to his Puerto Rican heritage from start to finish. The Pittsburgh Pirates legend arrived in North America in 1954, joining the minor-league Montreal Royals without knowing much English or French — all while overcoming the systemic barriers of being a Black man seeking prominence at that time.

Within a little over a year, Clemente had turned himself into an icon, using his notoriety to elevate his home soil and the people on it, as well as other less-favoured parts of Latin America.

"I know how he felt," said Montoyo, who is also a Puerto Rico native. "I’m not even close to Clemente when he went through it, because it was tougher (then) not speaking English. But I came to the States with no English at all. So I know what the English barrier does, not knowing what people are telling you and stuff. I’ve gone through all that. Of course, not as bad (as) when Clemente played. Not only what he did on the field, but he was my idol for what he did off the field. He was a great human being, trying to help people all the time.

"I'm proud of who he was. Hopefully someday MLB will retire his jersey."

The Hebrew word for “remembrance” is Yizkor. It encompasses not legacy or milestones, but a person’s greatest, most meaningful moments in life, which is reminiscent of what Clemente represented for the world of baseball and for Latin America. He was a Gold Glove right fielder, 3,000-hit slugger, two-time World Series champion, an MVP and a perennial All-Star. But more than anything, then and now, he was a philanthropist.

Blue Jays pitcher José Berríos used to hear his dad’s tales about Clemente back in Puerto Rico when he was young.

"The first thing he said 'we're not going to see another arm like his in right field.' Then, the good person he was, the way he was out of the field," said Berríos on Wednesday. "A lot of people he helped around the world, so that impacted myself to learn more about Roberto Clemente."

Since Clemente made history back in the 50s and 60s, Puerto Rican baseball has grown and evolved year by year. Today, two MLB teams are managed by natives of the island: Montoyo for the Blue Jays and Alex Cora for the Boston Red Sox.

"It's a great blessing to have people like Charlie, Cora or Edwin Rodriguez," said Berríos. "They’re opening a lot of doors for people from Puerto Rico."

As it is well documented, Clemente died as he lived after years of charity work — especially involving hurricane relief — in places like Nicaragua and his native Puerto Rico. On New Year’s Eve, 1972, the then-38-year-old Clemente boarded a plane to Managua, which was loaded with hurricane-relief supplies.

The plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, still in Puerto Rican territory, ending his life. Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame, and his legacy remains alive in MLB through initiatives like Roberto Clemente Day and the award in his name.

"Today means a lot for not only for Puerto Ricans but also for all Latin guys, playing this beautiful sport, having a chance to put 21 on your jersey ... and feeling like you have his spirit in you," said Berríos. "I'm enjoying this day and I will be always grateful for (Clemente) and everything he did."

Each year since 1973, following his death, the league presents the Roberto Clemente Award to the player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team." Each club submits one nominee and the winner is typically revealed along with other season recognitions after the World Series.

Toronto’s 2021 Clemente candidate is Bo Bichette, a young leader in the clubhouse and a guy who has embraced the plurality of baseball from Day 1. On Wednesday, Bichette wore No. 21 during the game — as did George Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Berríos and some members of the Blue Jays coaching staff — and his traditional “La Gente del Barrio” t-shirt ahead of it.

"We're showing everybody who we are," Bichette said after the Blue Jays’ win on Wednesday, referring to his team’s sixth-consecutive series win after hovering around .500 for most of the regular season.

The Blue Jays will need to keep fighting until the very end to snatch a Wild Card spot in the American League and make it back into the postseason. And they’re doing so by having fun, sticking together and staying true to their identity.

That brand of unity is reminiscent of Clemente’s life lessons.

"I'm always going to have in mind that we are human," said Berríos. "We’re a person first, no matter where we come from."

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