Angels coach Jose Molina puts Roberto Clemente’s number on his back

Angels first base coach Jose Molina was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, about 16 miles from Roberto Clemente’s hometown of Carolina. Like others from the Caribbean island, Molina and his brothers looked up to Clemente, Puerto Rico’s first native Hall of Famer.

Molina was born three years after Clemente’s death in 1972. His admiration was nourished by the history books.

“I knew how Roberto felt helping others,” Molina said. “I hope that always stays in people’s heads because he was so special.”

Wednesday marked baseball’s annual “Roberto Clemente Day.” Every uniformed member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the only franchise Clemente played for after he was taken from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft, wore his number 21 jersey. Any Puerto Rican-born player, coach or manager on any team was allowed to wear the number, too.

Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco stands in right field during the fourth inning of the team’s baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Sept 9, 2020. The Pittsburgh Pirates, all are wearing Pirates’ Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente’s number 21 to commemorate Roberto Clemente Day. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Molina wore number 21 onto the field Wednesday. Players on the Angels and Rangers had a number 21 patch sewn onto the left sleeve of their jerseys. Mark Gubicza and Victor Rojas wore Clemente jerseys during Fox Sports West’s broadcast of the game.

Although some Latin American players, most famously Sammy Sosa, wore number 21 as a tribute to Clemente, Molina never did. He said he never tried to get the number, either, in his 15-year playing career.

“I think, out of respect for (Clemente), I think nobody should wear number 21,” Molina said. “That’s my opinion. But that’s the way it goes. I never tried to wear it as respect for him.”

Only one number is universally retired by all 30 MLB teams: Jackie Robinson’s number 42. While Clemente’s number was retired by the Pirates after his death, other teams have yet to follow suit. The league recognizes his legacy by presenting the Roberto Clemente Award each year to recognize a player’s humanitarian work. Mike Trout is the Angels’ nominee this year.

For Molina, it was particularly special when his brother, Yadier, won the award in 2018.

“I think everybody knows how me and my brothers play,” Jose Molina said. “We had the pride of Roberto in our hearts.”

ANOTHER POSITION FOR THAISS

Matt Thaiss said he “was a little shocked” when he was in the starting lineup as a second baseman Tuesday, the first time he’d played the position since Little League.

The shock barely had time to wear off by Wednesday, when he was penciled in as the Angels’ starting left fielder. Maddon said the last time Thaiss played the outfield was in high school.

“The more positions that Matt’s able to play, the longer his major league career can possibly be,” Maddon said. “He’s capable of doing it. He’s got the skill set to play 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 auger him in there somehow.”

During his 33-day stint at Blair Field in Long Beach, the Angels’ alternate site, Thaiss got work in the outfield, first base, second base and third base. The Angels drafted him as a catcher out of the University of Virginia in 2016, but used him exclusively at first and third as a pro. Thaiss was a designated hitter once in 58 major league games prior to Tuesday.

Why make him a utility player now?

The answer seems to be a combination of circumstance and opportunity. The Angels’ roster was already somewhat disadvantaged by carrying several inflexible position players. Albert Pujols is exclusively a first baseman. Justin Upton is exclusively a left fielder. Shohei Ohtani is exclusively a DH, at least for now.

When Upton suffered a hand injury in Tuesday’s game, Maddon was forced to adjust. In Long Beach, Thaiss had been taking reps in the outfield of his own volition, Maddon said.

“He knew that this possibility would be an opportunity that could happen at some point,” Maddon said. “He took it upon himself to do a lot of work in this regard.”

INJURY UPDATES

Upton did not undergo any further diagnostic testing on his left hand Wednesday. He was hit on the hand twice Tuesday, on separate pitches from Rangers pitcher Lance Lynn. Upton left the game in the fourth inning and was diagnosed with a contusion.

“I think he’s progressing well,” Maddon said.

David Fletcher, who is on the injured list with a sprained left ankle, took part in batting practice. He’s eligible to return Thursday.

“We’ll see how he moves around and try to make a good decision,” Maddon said.