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September 16, 2015

Gracias, Señor Clemente!

His hands were large and beautiful and I believe that more than anything else, his hands reflected his spirit. On the field, he gripped the bat with the strength of a tiger. But when he saw a child and patted their head, his hands were extremely gentle. – Luis Rodriguez-Mayoral

Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wrote in the 1973 eulogy that “Roberto Clemente gave the term ‘complete’ a new meaning. He made the word ‘superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.” Robert Angell wrote that “Roberto Clemente played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before… As if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field.”

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Indeed, the numbers he assembled over 18 big league seasons tell the story of a complete ballplayer. Clemente was a Major League Baseball (MLB) right fielder who played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 through 1972. Clemente was a 15-time All-Star for twelve seasons, a National League (NL) Most Valuable Player one season, a NL batting champion four seasons, and a Gold Glove winner twelve seasons. In 1972, Clemente got his 3,000th major league hit in the last plate appearance of his career during a regular season game. Clemente is the first Latin American and Caribbean player to win a World Series as a starter (1960), to receive a NL MVP Award (1966), and to receive a World Series MVP Award (1971). He was inducted posthumously to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, becoming the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be enshrined.

However, the best players in the league aren’t just known for excellence on the field, but what they do when the game is over. This was also the story with Roberto Clemente, who was convinced that God wanted him to play baseball. But Clemente also always knew he came to the world for some greater reason. Off the field, Clemente’s service to his community was his greatest achievement. He used to say that

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.

His former teammate, Al Oliver said that “to hear Roberto was like listening to my Dad. He preached like a Baptist minister. He would say, ‘How can the rich have so much (money) and there are people starving?’ This was his mindset… His spirituality.”

Roberto was born in the summer of 1934 in a house of concrete and wood on an old country road in Barrio San Antón, Carolina, Puerto Rico, as the youngest of seven siblings, with four brothers and two sisters. It was probably also because the family’s resources were limited that he became an ardent philanthropist later in his life. Clemente’s philanthropy was not calculated to gain public or private recognition. He simply wanted to help people in need. For some, his generosity was financial; with others he freely shared his chiropractic knowledge — learned as a result of his own back injury in 1954; and for many others, particularly children, Clemente’s kindness came as free lessons in the game of baseball.

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Clemente always cared about children. Despite his busy schedule, he made time to hold baseball clinics for kids, especially for those from low-income families. He dreamed of building a “Sports City” where Puerto Rican youth would have ready access to facilities, coaching, and encouragement in many sports. It was another way of working toward a Puerto Rico that was healthier, happier, and fairer.

The final story is well known – Clemente lost his life in 1972 while leading a humanitarian relief effort in earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. The life led before the tragic end, however, reveals the depth of Clemente’s strength. The people he touched are numerous. Let us all therefore not forget one of his quotes: “I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.” Columnist Jimmy Cannon of the New York Journal-American said it best when he wrote: “Baseball survives because guys like Clemente still play it.”

His compassion inspired one of baseball’s highest awards – The Roberto Clemente Award. Since 1971, Major League Baseball has annually presented an award that recognizes the player that best exemplifies the game of baseball through sportsmanship and in his individual contribution to his team. But the award is also about what the player does off the field – his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others. In 1972 the award, formerly know as the Commissioner’s Award, was renamed to honor Clemente. You can vote for your candidate for the 2016 Roberto Clemente award on social media.

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American League nominees include Brian Matusz of Baltimore, Brock Holt of Boston, David Robertson of the Chicago White Sox, Carlos Carrasco of Cleveland, Miguel Cabrera of Detroit, George Springer of Houston, Alex Gordon of Kansas City, Hector Santiago of the Los Angeles Angels, Torii Hunter of Minnesota, Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees, Stephen Vogt of Oakland, Charlie Furbush of Seattle, Chris Archer of Tampa Bay, Adrian Beltre of Texas and Jose Bautista of Toronto.

National League nominees include Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona, Jason Grilli of Atlanta, Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs, J.J. Hoover of Cincinnati, Kyle Kendrick of Colorado, Adrian Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dee Gordon of Miami, Jonathan Lucroy of Milwaukee, Curtis Granderson of the New York Mets, Ryan Howard of Philadelphia, Andrew McCutchen of Pittsburgh, Adam Wainwright of St. Louis, Andrew Cashner of San Diego, Javier Lopez of San Francisco and Denard Span of Washington.

There is probably no better way to finish this blog post than by a poem by Guillermo Calderon, Jr., dedicated to one of the baseball’s greatest and kindest from Puerto Rico, who will forever stay in our minds and in our hearts:

CLEMENTE

You patrolled your expansive terrain,
With the range and prowess of the Peregrine falcon.
Fielding the ball at the base of the outfield fence,
You hurled the Rawlings diamond towards home plate,
As David had slung his stone towards the Philistine,
With the force of the cannon shot.
On the fly, and with a leathery thud, the horsehide cradled in the web of the catcher’s mitt,
A split second prior;
No RBI.

You wielded your sword of lumber,
With the ferocity of the Crusader.
A frozen rope towards the power alley,
One more step toward 3000, and immortality.
You stood majestically atop second base,
As the bald eagle stands above its captured quarry.
Stretching the double to a triple, we witnessed your
effortless emotion, rhythmic perfection of sheer will.
In a cloud of dust from the thrust of your silvery spikes,
You sacrificed your being, as a loyal warrior honors his king, sliding safely beneath blue’s acclamation.
You cradled third base with both arms, as
In admiration of the spoil of the vanquished.
A symphony, of grace, athleticism, stamina and sacrifice.

The familiar number 21,
Your uniform of the black and gold.
Stained by pine tar and the blades of St. Augustine,
Acquired from the grass fields of Fenway, Chavez Ravine,
Wrigley, and the House of Ruth.

Your aged body,
Shrouded in dirt and chalk,
Scarred by weather, turf and time,
As if the worn armor of a Grail Knight.

As “El Primer Latino”,
You passed through the gates of Baseball’s Hall.
With the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr.,
You destroyed barriers of color.
You weathered the curse of celebrity and prejudice,
When doubters queried your strength of heart.

Fatefully, as the earth’s plates shifted,
So, did your sands of time.
The Lord called upon your courage and strength of soul,
You answered His call for righteous endeavor,
With an absence of fear.
On the wings of Pegasus,
Your valiant effort to ease the travail of others.
As you fell from the sky,
Our wounded souls mourned.
You returned to the depths of life’s beginnings,
A life extinguished prematurely,
As the fleeting life of a shooting star.

We acquired understanding…
For your love of home,
As your brother’s keeper.
We cannot question your countenance,
Or Your love of the game.
And smiled as you passed through the pearly gates of Heaven’s Hall.

Your moments of greatness,
On the hallowed fields of dreams,
Are mere shadows to your everlasting truth,
Not as a ballplayer….

But as a human being.

Gracias Roberto….
We are humbled, proud, and blessed,
By your strength of culture, your Grace,
Your richness of Faith.

Gracias Roberto….
We pray future generations,
Are witnesses to your magnificence,
Your strength of character,
Your standard of excellence,
Your inspiration.

Gracias, Roberto.


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