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José Molina isn’t sure when he heard the name Roberto Clemente for the first time.
The Angels catching coach, and longtime former major leaguer who won the World Series with the Angels in 2002, was born in Puerto Rico just a few years after Clemente’s death in a 1972 airplane crash. Clemente had been a National League MVP, a World Series champion, a perennial All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner, and a Hall of Fame inductee. The Puerto Rican outfielder was synonymous with baseball in his homeland. One didn’t have to try hard to find mention of Clemente.
But Molina does remember the first time Clemente’s legacy truly resonated with him. He was a young teenager preparing to turn pro, which he eventually did when the Chicago Cubs drafted him in 1993 out of Maestro Ladi High in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico. All he really knew about Clemente were his Hall of Fame credentials — and the Clemente-themed lesson Molina’s father, Benjamin Sr., often shared.
“Always my dad told me, ‘Just play with pride,’” Molina said. “And I think that's what Roberto did. He played the game with pride.”
A deep dive into history broadened Molina’s understanding of Puerto Ricans’ affection for their country’s greatest baseball player. Clemente dedicated himself to charity work throughout his career. A humanitarian, he died at 38 years old delivering supplies to survivors of a 6.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked Nicaragua. His overloaded cargo plane crashed off the coast of San Juan shortly after takeoff.
By the time he made it the major leagues, Molina’s respect for Clemente outweighed any desire to wear the No. 21 jersey one of his childhood heroes made famous during 18 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But Molina didn’t pass on the opportunity to wear the No. 21 in Clemente’s honor on Wednesday in Arlington, Texas, in a 7-3 Angels loss to the Texas Rangers. For the first time since Major League Baseball began celebrating Roberto Clemente Day in 2002, all Puerto Rican players, coaches and managers were permitted by the league and the Clemente family to switch to No. 21. Anyone else wishing to pay tribute to Clemente could wear a numbered patch.
Molina is the lone active Puerto Rican on the Angels — countryman Jesús Feliciano, the team’s first base and outfield coach, has been away from the team for undisclosed reasons since the end of July — so he was the only one wearing 21 on Wednesday. But others on the team had their patches applied before the Angels game against the Texas Rangers.
“A lot of people look up to him for what he did in the field,” Molina said in a pregame videoconference. “I like to look at what he did off the field. Really humble guy, a guy that loved to give to other people. That's one of the things I take from him, just that he liked to share everything and help others. As a player, he was great. No doubt about that. But him being so humble and the way he was off the field, I really take that [to heart].”
The chance to wear Clemente’s number on a day commemorating his memory is important to Molina, whose brother Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2018 for his efforts to help Puerto Ricans recover from damage wrought by Hurricane Maria.
But he’d like to see MLB take one more step and retire No. 21.
“I think it should be out,” he said. “Nobody should wear that number again. But it's not up to me.”
Manager Joe Maddon, who grew up watching Clemente from his family home in Hazleton, Pa., suggested the league honor Clemente like it does Jackie Robinson, getting all players to wear Clemente’s number one day a year.
“With Jackie Robinson Day and the 42, I think everybody would be proud to wear No. 21 on a given day annually,” Maddon said. “What a baseball player. How he passed was so awful and unfortunate. The guy’s [life] was cut short way too quickly. But what he accomplished in this game and the legacy that he's left is almost incomparable.”
Thaiss continues bolstering utility resume
One day after playing second base for the first time in his professional career, Matt Thaiss was thrown into yet another new position — left field.
Left-fielder Justin Upton was unavailable Wednesday after bruising his left wrist Tuesday night. The injury isn’t expected to sideline Upton for long, so Maddon decided to see how Thaiss’ athleticism would play in the outfield, where he hasn’t played since he was in high school.
The idea seems farfetched for a former first-rounder who caught in college, moved to first base upon being drafted by the Angels in 2016 and added a third-base glove to his locker last year. But Maddon believes Thaiss, 25, has the ability to blossom into a reliable utility player. He just needs playing time to prove it.
“The more positions that Matt’s able to play, the longer his major league career could possibly be,” Maddon said. “He’s capable of doing it. He’s got a skill set that plays in a variety of positions. He’s got the makeup to deal with it. As the bat develops, that’s the item that’s going to make you want to [put] him in there somehow. This helps him, as a young man in a baseball career, become more attractive.”
Thaiss’ path is very similar to that of fellow utility player Taylor Ward, a catcher-turned-infielder who started taking repetitions in the outfield four years after the Angels drafted him in the first round.
Thaiss took it upon himself to practice in the outfield at the Angels’ alternate site at Long Beach State, so he had at least some experience on which to rely during Wednesday’s game.
“He is a good athlete and he has good feel for a lot of these things,” Maddon said. “So I'm relying on him and his athleticism. … Is he going to be perfect today? I have no idea. But I know in the long haul, the more opportunity we give this guy, the more we're going to find out. And my bet would be on him becoming a very good Major League Baseball player.”