NEW YORK – Washington Nationals designated hitter Nelson Cruz pulled his game day hat off a hook by his clubhouse locker Thursday to show that a “21” patch was stitched onto the back to honor Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.
Like other winners of the humanitarian award named in memory of Clemente, Cruz will be allowed to wear the late Pittsburgh Pirates star outfielder's uniform number on his cap for the rest of his major league career. Cruz wears No. 23 on his jersey.
Major League Baseball announced the initiative on Thursday, saying it was a “special tribute to (Clemente's) enduring legacy.” The announcement was timed for the 50th anniversary of the year in which Clemente died in a plane crash at age 38 while on a relief effort to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
“It’s a privilege. An honor. He means so much for baseball, in general. He was an example to follow – how to be professional, on and off the field. A remarkable player and a remarkable human being who lost his life trying to help others,” Cruz said before Washington's opening day game against the visiting New York Mets.
“He paid the ultimate price, and whatever we do is not enough.”
The Roberto Clemente Award is announced during each World Series and given to a player for “extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”
“It means the world," said Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who, like Clemente, is from Puerto Rico. “Everybody knows why you are wearing that number. It means a lot, for the player, for the families, for the organizations. I think it's a great way to show respect to the individual."
In addition to Cruz, active Clemente winners include Carlos Carrasco (Mets), Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers), Andrew McCutchen (Brewers), Anthony Rizzo (Yankees) and Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright (Cardinals).
“The Roberto Clemente Award is easily the best award I've won in my career,” Rizzo said. “Just representing him, having that recognition of his number on the forefront of a lot of players' hats throughout the league will be will be in his honor. It’s very deserving because he served everyone else.”
Cruz said he was contacted during spring training about whether he wanted to wear the patch.
“Easy decision, no doubt,” he said.
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed.
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