Sunday, January 25, 2004

The Clemente Legacy

No athlete had the combination of integrity, honesty, compassion, and greatness like Roberto Clemente. His word was gold. He loved playing baseball, even with a chronic bad back. He felt like it was a privilege to play the game. He always wanted to give the fans his best performance. He dealt with learning a second language. He wanted to help people. He was a gentleman, a baseball star and a humanitarian. He was a hero.

Clemente was born on Aug. 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of seven children. He helped his father, who worked as a foreman on a sugar plantation and manager of a grocery store, load and unload trucks. But his passion was baseball, and in Puerto Rico, he played year round.


Major League Baseball scouts noticed Clemente’s skill. He became the starting rightfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 20. He struggled learning the English language just like I am having a tough time learning Spanish.


Clemente was the best rightfielder ever. His throwing arm was like a gun. He won 12 Gold Gloves. He also was a great hitter. He won four batting titles and hit safely in all 14 World Series Games he played in, helping the Pirates win two Series. In 1966, he was the National League’s MVP. Still, he was a humble man.

Clemente told a reporter, “I believe we owe something to the people who watch us. When we don’t try 100 percent, we steal from them.”


Before game 7 of the 1971 World Series, which Clemente batted .414 en route to the series MVP, he told writer Roger Angell, “I want everybody in the world to know that this is the way I play all the time – all season, every season. I gave everything I had to this game.”

During the winter of 1972, Clemente began developing a sports city for the youngsters in San Juan. An earthquake hit Managua, Nicaragua, on Dec. 23, 1972, killing thousands and leaving more than 250,000 people homeless. Clemente took charge in sending relief to these people. Clemente worried about the fate of a 14-year-old orphan who had lost both legs. He worried about supplies being sent promptly and efficiently to the needy. He barely slept and refused to open Christmas presents, instead working 14-hour days for the relief effort.

Supplies were being intercepted by the Nicaraguan Army, so Clemente decided to do the job himself. He boarded a small supply plane with four others on New Year’s Eve. Shortly after takeoff, the plane exploded and crashed into the Atlantic. Clemente’s death was tragic, but represented the man he was.


As Clemente put it best, “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”

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