It’s that time of the year again, the time when major league baseball gears up. Talks of team acquisitions, spring training and, of course, the Mitchell Report have begun to dominate the media. I’ve admitted before, that I don’t follow professional baseball as closely as I follow the NFL. No, I couldn’t tell you who’s the top pitcher, catcher or shortstop in the league today. Nor can I tell you the stats of every Pirate’s player, now.
Yet I do remember, summer trips to Three Rivers Stadium, sitting in peanut heaven, throwing peanuts down on people below us (who got pissed off and looked around to see who was showering them with nuts, as we looked innocent). I remember trading coke bottles for bubble gum with baseball cards, taking the players we didn’t like and pinning them to the spokes of our bicycle tires. Listening to the baseball games during family picnics, halting play when I heard the name of my favorite players.
I remember the names of some, the more prominent, Willie Stargell, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Bill Mazeroski and one in particular. I remember the pride I felt when I found out that my uncle was trying out for the Pirate’s when he returned from Vietnam and the disappointment when he didn’t make the cut.
It would be later that I tried to give my daughter the same experience I had when I was little. We went to a game, she was bored. I took her to another, she was bored. Yet, even as an adult, though I didn’t follow the games, I did enjoy going to them. They were still fun (yes, I even threw peanuts the few times, just to recreate that old feeling again – unfortunately, it wasn’t the same.)
As nostalgia takes over, there’s a sense of sadness. With the recent information about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, players who sought to cement their legacy, by what seems to be any means possible, I remember another player who’s legacy was cemented, not only because of the type of player he was on the field but also his selflessness as a human being, a selflessness that would eventually cost him his life.
He will always be known as “The Great One”. His will be a legacy that would surpass that of Sammy Sosa, Bonds and Clemens combined. He has been the inspiration for many players in the major league today. He will also be remembered as a great humanitarian. He is Roberto Clemente.
For those too young to remember Clemente, he was considered one of the best for his times. He led the league in scoring, during four different seasons and was the recipient of twelve Golden Glove Awards. Yet it wasn’t his feats on the field that endeared me to him. It was his compassion. Clemente gave his time, his money and himself to help the underprivileged in Latin American countries, to include those in his home of Puerto Rico. It was this that cemented his legacy in baseball and his homeland. I still remember the shock and sadness I felt when I heard of the plane crash that would take his life in 1972, when he flew down to Nicaragua, after a devastating earthquake to deliver food.
On my last visit to Three Rivers, I stood before the statue that had been erected there, touching it tentatively, remembering the man and tried to describe him to my daughter, she was young, she didn’t get it. At least the major league got it. Not only was Clemente voted into the Hall of Fame in 1973, but now yearly presents the National Roberto Clemente Award to one player on each team who embodies the characteristics that made Roberto Clemente revered: sportsmanship, community service and positive contributions to his team.
Unfortunately, players like Bonds and Clemens seemed to have missed the mark in their quest to achieve greatness. Someone should have told them long ago that it’s not what you can do but who you are that makes you great. To me, Roberto Clemente will always be my hero.