Every person in uniform wore No. 21 Thursday night at Citi Field to honor Roberto Clemente Day, but Francisco Lindor stood out among them.
Clemente is a Puerto Rican legend, and Lindor, who was born and raised in the island city of Caguas, went beyond the number on his back. He donned red-and-blue custom cleats that paid homage to Clemente. The inside of his glove read “Gracias Roberto.”
Lindor’s tribute, however, did not stop with his wardrobe. With more than a dozen past winners of the Clemente award in attendance at Citi, a list that included some of baseball’s brightest stars -- Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado among them -- Lindor grabbed the spotlight like none of the others in the building could.
On a night when everyone recalled Clemente’s legacy, and the Mets needed a hero of their own to revive a flagging division-title pursuit, Lindor satisfied both of those responsibilities Thursday night with a spectacular two-run homer that spurred the 7-1 victory over the Pirates. For a kid who learned about Clemente, and admired the careers of the Puerto Rican stars that followed him, to have all that “happy energy” in the stadium was special.
“One hundred percent,” Lindor said. “Those were idols who were here today. Guys I grew up idolizing and imitating. Beltran, Delgado, Jimmy Rollins. Those guys I have the utmost respect for them. I look up to them. I talk to them a lot and they’re big mentors in my career. I’m glad they were here.”
They also got quite a show. In the third inning, Lindor turned on a first-pitch slider from Pirates starter JT Brubaker and launched it halfway up the second deck of the Coca-Cola Corner in rigthfield. The ball disappeared in a blink, with Lindor watching for a few moments before putting his head down and trotting to first base.
That blast, his 24th, also did more than merely put the Mets ahead, 4-0, in a game that, yes, they desperately needed to win. It gave Lindor the franchise single-season home run record by a shortstop as well as a new career-high in 94 RBIs.
“It’s great,” Lindor said. “It’s a blessing, it’s an honor to be in elite company. But I play the game to win and i want to win. We’re doing that right now. I think it will mean a lot more to win the World Series than to be the all-time leading shortstop in home runs. Those things are cool, but I want to win the World Series. That’s what I want to be remembered for.”
Lindor does understand history, too. When manager Buck Showalter approached him about being the DH for Thursday’s series opener, Lindor told him his preference was to play the field on Clemente’s day. He’s going to need a break at some point -- Lindor has now played in 144 of the Mets’ 145 games -- but not Thursday. And that big swing in the third inning was no coincidence. The Mets badly needed a huge night from him as well.
“That meant a lot to him,” Showalter said. “He’s been a rock for us in so many ways. There’s certain things you can put in the ‘I can count on that column’ and Francisco’s one of those guys.”
Not that it’s been easy. Lindor talked over the weekend in Miami about the Mets “hitting the wall” at this late date in the season. The finish line may be in sight, but this is a team that has looked tired during their previous dozen games, when the Mets went 5-7 against well-below .500 teams like the Nats, Pirates, Marlins and Cubs. Lindor and Pete Alonso -- two Mets that should finish in the top 10 for NL MVP -- have been the twin engines of his lineup’s success, but no one is immune to the fatigue from a six-month season.
Even Lindor, riding the adrenaline high of homering on Clemente’s night, had to admit that’s still a factor. As much as his heroics were a lift to the Mets, and a fitting moment for everyone there to honor Clemens, Lindor is only human after all.
“It was a special day,” Lindor said. “There was a lot more buzz around, a lot of happy energy in the building. But it’s still a grind. I’m still tired and I’ll be tired tomorrow. I’m just happy a lot of guys were able to contribute to today’s win, including myself.”
All of those guys wore No. 21, but not everyone made an impact like Lindor. And the effort was certainly appreciated, by the Mets in uniform Thursday night, and the luminaries who used to wear it.