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CLEVELAND — No matter who was asked about Roberto Clemente in the Guardians or White Sox clubhouse, the answer immediately highlighted who Clemente was as a person before even mentioning his Hall of Fame career.
MLB is once again recognizing a player central to baseball’s history and legacy. Thursday is Roberto Clemente Day, and teams across the league, including the Guardians at Progressive Field, will show a video tribute to the former Pirate celebrating the legacy he created, especially off the field.
“Just knowing what Roberto Clemente did for his people and knowing how he passed away, going to give back to his country,” Guardians pitcher and Roberto Clemente Award nominee Triston McKenzie said. “I think just knowing what he stood for and what he meant to baseball, talking to guys like our coaches who watched him play and knew how good of a player he was and knowing he passed away giving back to people that were less fortunate than him, just makes it all the more honorable for me to be nominated for the award.”
The White Sox Roberto Clemente Award nominee, Liam Hendriks, was struck by the same thing: The circumstances of Clemente’s death.
“I’ve actually dealt with Roberto Clemente Jr. a little bit through some of the previous things we’ve done,” Hendriks said. “Just learning about what he was doing, obviously about his untimely death and what he was doing at the moment of that.”
Clemente died when he was 38, right after his All-Star season in 1972. He was flying to Nicaragua to help deliver aid to victims of an earthquake when his plane crashed. He had just finished his 18th season in the big leagues, having racked up 15 All-Star nominations, 12 Gold Gloves and an MVP Award.
Appreciation for what Clemente did on the field was rampant in both clubhouses Thursday morning, but most of the awe was directed toward the community member that he was. Clemente was known for his charitable efforts, and Major League Baseball now acknowledges players who make impacts in their communities every season with an award in his honor — something that Hendriks doesn’t take lightly.
“He brought a lot of joy to a lot of people, and that act of selflessness and making sure he put other people ahead of him,” Hendriks said. “It’s unbelievable watching the impact he had. Now you look around and every team has a Roberto Clemente nominee, every team has players who actively are in the community. A lot of it started with what he was trying to do in making sure other people who weren’t in the game were kind of being taken care of, and the ability to go about and follow your passions in a philanthropic way.”
Some players, like Cleveland’s Richie Palacios and McKenzie and Chicago’s Hendriks and Jake Diekman (Boston’s Roberto Clemente Award nominee), will be sporting Clemente’s No. 21 jersey on Thursday afternoon for Roberto Clemente Day. Others will wear patches to honor his legacy. But no matter who chooses to do what, both teams are adamant about making sure Clemente is remembered.
“He’s a legend,” White Sox bench coach Miguel Cairo said. “He’s Puerto Rican but he’s significant for all Latino players who play Major League Baseball. Of course I’m going to wear [the wrist patch]. I’m proud to be a Latino, proud to represent how he represented us on and off the field. He was unbelievable, he always helped people. He was a really good human being.”