ROBERTO'S LAST AT-BAT

ROBERTO'S LAST AT-BAT

From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Roberto’s Last At-Bat

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Edmund Burke

As one who wore his first baseball uniform at age three, who slept with his glove under his pillow, who loved the taste of dirt while diving to knock down a ball, who during the 1960s tiptoed around Forbes Field in Pittsburgh like it was a shrine, who marveled at the extraordinary skills of Pirates’ right fielder Roberto Clemente and, unfortunately, as one whose bat could never figure out the physics of a curve ball in the Pony League, I did the next best thing to keep my flame for the game alive.

I became a beer vendor at Three Rivers Stadium when it opened in July 1970.

During the summer of the 1972 season, Roberto’s last, I was returning to the commissary for another load of beer when Clemente, known as “The Great One,” was getting up from a table where he was signing autographs.

As he was dressed in a crisp, white Pirates’ home uniform, I approached him in my dorky, neon-green Zum Zum uniform. Our eyes locked, and I briefly asked him in Spanish how he was feeling today.

In an instant, Roberto—with supernatural forces of explosive energy and extreme dignity emanating from his compact body—focused all of his concern on me and respectfully asked how I was doing.

Even though we were worlds apart in careers and years, there was not one drop of condescension, just Roberto’s singular concentration for a fellow human being that pierced through me like a laser beam. It was a moment in time that has transcended throughout my life. Yet I was by no means alone.

“Roberto identified with the struggler—the poor man, the taxi driver and the factory worker,” explained Luis Mayoral-Rodriguez, a liaison for Latin American ballplayers, in Pittsburgh Weekly. “The people who have to suffer, he used to say, the people who have to work.”

Despite Roberto’s incredibly acrobatic ability for running down fly balls in the gap, his low-slung “basket catches”, his unequaled cannon like arm, his flailing, all-out base-running style, and his beloved, thirty-six-ounce knobless bat with his ferocious, helmet-spinning corkscrew swing, his greatest and lasting memory will always be what he selflessly accomplished and showed by example off the diamond.

Throughout his life, Roberto continually helped people wherever he was—on Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he doled out money to homeless people—or throughout Puerto Rico where he passed out fifty-cent pieces to kids.

Roberto was a man who was extremely vigorous to his word. He once said, “If you have a chance to do something for somebody and do not make the most of it, you are wasting your time on Earth.” He could never say “no” if he were asked to help or if he felt something better could be done to help those less fortunate.

While being honored by the large Puerto Rican community in New York, Clemente was reluctant to accept a Cadillac as a gift. He insisted the money could be better spent helping charitable organizations and later got promises from the sponsors to help his two favorite causes: mentally-challenged children and kids with physical handicaps.

At the end of that 1972 season, the thirty-eight-year-old Clemente stroked his three-thousandth hit, a double off the left-centerfield wall. I remember it well. I was carrying a load of Iron City beer with my left arm and raising my right fist in the air whooping it up with the rest of the slim crowd. That was Roberto’s last official hit, which in retrospect became all too symmetrical and memorable as it capped his illustrious career.

Two months later, while back in Puerto Rico, Clemente eerily woke up one morning and told his wife, Vera, that he’d seen his own funeral in a dream.

Then, during almost the entire month of November, he was in Nicaragua, managing a Puerto Rican baseball team in an amateur World Series. While he was there, he befriended a fourteen-year-old legless orphan and made arrangements for him to be fitted with artificial limbs.

Clemente’s compassion combined with being a man of action came to full force after a powerful earthquake rocked Managua, Nicaragua, on December 23, 1972. It killed over 7,000 people and left 250,000 homeless.

This motivated Clemente into becoming head of the Puerto Rican relief committee. He worked fourteen-hour days, gathering food and supplies, filming TV spots, making calls and even going door-to-door to collect donations. His Christmas presents lay unopened as he worked straight through the holidays. In all, he collected $150,000 and twenty-three tons of food, medicine and supplies.

Clemente also made arrangements to lease a cargo plane for three round-trips to Nicaragua at a cost of $11,000.

But then a desperate call came in from Managua for sugar and even more medical supplies. Again, Clemente made the arrangements. This time for a rickety-old, DC-7 cargo plane.

Despite the pleas of Vera and his best friends, Manny Sanguillen and Jose Pagan, Clemente was committed to complete his mission of mercy by going on the second plane as he had heard reports that the rebels in Nicaragua were confiscating shipments.

When asked why he had to leave on New Year’s Eve, a highly revered holiday in Puerto Rico, Clemente simply responded, “For me, every day is the same.”

With eight tons of supplies haphazardly loaded on the DC-7, the plane took off. An engine caught fire, and it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean at 9:22 P.M. sending Clemente and four others to their premature deaths.

That New Year’s Eve, back in Pittsburgh, I had left my radio on all night to a soft music station. For some strange reason, I awoke at 4:00 A.M. just as the first news of his death was being broadcast. Stunned, I can only remember those next couple of weeks as a blur of widespread and deeply felt community grief throughout Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico.

It was just ninety-one days after his three-thousandth hit and only a month after he foresaw his death in a dream. But just as he played the game, Roberto’s passing was not only dramatic, it made a statement as well.

It’s a statement that has flourished over the years as a bridge, dozens of schools, health centers, ball fields, parks, streets and even a thoroughbred have been named in his honor all over the world.

In 1973, Major League Baseball changed the name of the Commissioner’s Award to the Roberto Clemente Award to annually honor a player who best exemplifies the game of baseball through his involvement in the community.

And as just one example of how he touched so many people, an eight-story-high school in Chicago opened its doors in June 1974, as Roberto Clemente High School. Explaining the name change, the school declared, “This extraordinary man is remembered by most people as one who gave all he had to give, including his life, to help his fellow man.”

Yet while most baseball fans were in awe of the exterior Clemente—his gifted physical skills—his enduring legacy will always be the interior Clemente, who as a compassionate humanitarian was, and still is, symbolic of the highest level of human potential for passionate caring and giving within all of us.

Helping people he didn’t know, at their greatest time of need, Roberto Clemente, in his last at-bat, died as a volunteer.

John T. Boal

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on the Roberto Clemente Foundation, contact 320 East North Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15212; 412-231-2300; fax: 412-231-0574; e-mail: [email protected];Web site: www.RobertoClementeFoundation.org.]

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