Fennelly: 40 years later, Clemente remains man for all time

On Sept. 30, 1972, Roberto Clemente became the 11th man in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits. He remains baseball’s proud lion, its truest hero and most merciful soul, as Martin Fennelly reports in this article for The Tampa Tribune. Follow the link below for the original column and photographs.

Forty years ago, Sept. 30, 1972, the son of a Puerto Rican sugar cane processing foreman stood on second base at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, having doubled to become the 11th man in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits. It was his final regular-season at-bat, ever — 3,000 hits, on the button.

Forty years later, former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass can see his friend Roberto Clemente.

“He had one foot on second base and one foot on the dirt and he was tipping his (helmet) at the crowd,” Blass said. “He was the picture of grace. That was Roberto, absolute pride and principle, uncompromised. Integrity and dignity, uncompromised.”

And then he was gone. Like that, in the name of his fellow man, Roberto Clemente was gone. He was 38. He had been trying to help earthquake victims. The sea swallowed him up. He was never seen again, except by the angels.

Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz was in a dugout at Tropicana Field recently. Ortiz was the 2011 winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, annually presented to the major league player who best follows Clemente’s humanitarian path. Ortiz has a nonprofit foundation to help provide critical pediatric care in New England and his native Dominican Republic.

“We all follow in Clemente’s footsteps,” Ortiz said. “He made the way for so many of us. He showed the path.”

Rays catcher Jose Molina was born in Puerto Rico, roughly 40 miles east of Clemente’s hometown.

“They have been talking to me about him since I was a little boy,” Molina said. “You wanted to play like him, live like him, have a heart like him. He had a mighty heart.”

Al Oliver played outfield with Clemente in Pittsburgh, including the 1971 world championship team. Oliver lost his parents before he reached the majors. Clemente was like a father.

“When I think of Robby, I think of a man who knew who he was,” Oliver said. “He knew where he came from and what he was about. He was so proud of being Puerto Rican, of his Latino heritage.”

He could play, too.

Far from media centers, in the shadow of sluggers Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, Clemente staked his claim. He won four National League batting titles and a dozen Gold Gloves in right field. He was the 1966 NL MVP and had a .317 career average. He was style and fury: Clemente galloping around bases, a Clemente basket catch, then a 360 to unleash one of his throws, a tracer bullet rarely seen before or then or since.

“He could take a 10-year major-leaguer and turn him into a 10-year-old kid,” Blass said. “You didn’t want to take your eyes off him.”

People still talk about Clemente throws — and Clemente pride. He wanted fairness and respect. With teammates, he was loving.

“I remember telling him once that if I ever got traded, I was going to pitch him inside because everyone pitches him away,” Blass said. “And he says, ‘Blass, I’m going to tell you something: You pitch me inside, I hit the ball to Harrisburg.’ ”

Roberto Clemente was a hero in Puerto Rico and to Latino ballplayers who followed him to the majors. That line is unending.

“You know, if a genie came to me right now and granted me one thing to see, it would be to watch Roberto and Jackie Robinson play against each other in the same game,” Ortiz said. “One game, nine innings, just let me see them play against each other. … Back then, pride was way more than money. The game today is based way more on money. Back then, you played a lot more for pride.”

Clemente would make hospital visits to children on baseball road trips, keeping them secret. He dreamed of baseball complexes for poor children in Puerto Rico and beyond.

“He would always tell me he never understood, for the life of him, with all these millionaires in the world, why people were still starving,” Oliver said. “He wondered why more people didn’t try to help people.”

In 1971, in the twilight, the World Series against the favored Baltimore Orioles became Clemente’s lasting showcase. He hit .414, with 12 hits in seven games. He homered in the deciding seventh game in Baltimore. He was voted Series MVP, and when he spoke to the microphones, his first words were in Spanish, to his mother and father in Puerto Rico.

“It was a touching moment,” said Blass, who had two complete-game wins in the Series, including Game 7. On the joyous flight back to Pittsburgh, Clemente called Blass into the plane aisle. “Blass, come out here and embrace me,” he said. The men hugged. Blass read one of the eulogies at Clemente’s memorial service in Puerto Rico.

A few days before Christmas 1972, Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, was flattened by an earthquake. Thousands were dead or dying, thousands more were homeless. Clemente organized relief. He found emergency supplies and a plane. Worried over corruption in Nicaragua, he decided that he, Clemente, would travel on the plane to make sure supplies reached the people.

On New Year’s Eve, he left his family and went to the San Juan airport. The plane, overloaded, with a history of mechanical problems and an inexperienced crew, lurched into the darkness, out over the Atlantic. By morning, an oil slick was spotted just off the coast of San Juan.

Thousands waited at the water for Clemente. After a few days, one of his socks washed ashore.

Roberto Clemente was immediately voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after the waiting period was waived. There are dozens of schools, and parks, and statues and ball fields dedicated to him. And there is the award Ortiz won last year. Ortiz travels to Puerto Rico every winter.

“Last year, I drive by the water where his plane went in,” he said. “I stop and look at the water.”

Pride and principle, uncompromised. Integrity and dignity, uncompromised.

“We all owe something to that man,” Ortiz said.

For the original report go to http://www2.tbo.com/news/opinion/2012/sep/28/5/40-years-later-clemente-remains-a-man-for-all-time-ar-515856/

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