Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No. 21

I guess I should send PBS a thank you note.

Got home last night in time to watch an "American Experience" installment on Roberto Clemente. And, as I told Dean Harned afterwards, you feel after walking around in Clemente's shoes awhile that you finally know what it takes to become a better human being.

No. 21 was one heck of a right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a great defensive player with a heck of an arm. The hitting came later. But when it came, oh my goodness.

Clemente was from Puerto Rico, and to be a so-called "Latin player" on a major league team in the 1950s and early 1960s brought with it all the ugliness you can imagine. Sometimes it was obvious, like having to stay in another hotel across town during spring training. Sometimes it was subtle, but no less demeaning -- the Pirates announcers were instructed to call Clemente "Bob" or "Bobby"; the same moniker showed up on several of his early Topps baseball cards.

Clemente help bring the Pirates from the National League cellar to the pinnacle of the game -- beating the Yankees (in seven games!) during the 1960 World Series. Eleven years later, the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles to notch another championship.

But if Clemente's story was strictly about baseball, well, he'd be just another player, another card collecting dust in some aging Baby Boomer's closet. No, he was also a humanitarian in the best sense of that word, a thinker, a man who forever seemed perplexed by life.

He'd often ruminate on his aches and illnesses to broadcasters, something you didn't do in the stoic '50s. Sportswriters would come up looking for quotes; instead, Clemente would talk about life. Nobody quite knew what to do with him.

Then he died -- suddenly, shockingly -- on New Year's Eve 1972, while flying to Nicaragua on a relief mission after a massive earthquake. The plane was dilapidated, the pilot was a fraud -- but Roberto had to get to Nicaragua. He'd read that the supplies meant for relief were being stolen -- and worse. He had to go. He had to go.

The plane never arrived at its destination. Clemente's body was never found.

In an unprecedented vote, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Clemente the following year. He remains the only player in history for whom the mandatory five year waiting period following one's career was waived. It was the least they could do.

He'll be remembered for home runs and World Series victories, but that was only part of Roberto Clemente. It's that other part, though, that made him a hero.

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