Vera is now the director of Roberto Clemente Sports City, which has many Puerto Ricans breathing a sigh of relief. After Clemente died, a memorial fund was established for the Sports City project, and the Puerto Rican government gave the project some 200 acres of swampland. But for years the money went into the ground, literally and figuratively. Mismanagement plagued Sports City, and about the only thing giving the place credibility was an outfit called the Roberto Clemente Raiders, a baseball talent mill run by Brooklynite Luis Rosa that has turned out such major league stars as Benito Santiago. Ruben Sierra, Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Baerga, the Alomar brothers and Ivan Rodriguez.
But with Vera's arrival as director, there are other encouraging signs. In the immediate oiling for Sports City is a baseball stadium, named after its chief benefactor, Benito Santiago, and a gymnasium. An 18-hole golf course designed by Roberto's friend Chi Chi Rodriguez and an Olympic-sized pool are also in the plan.
Sports City already has a smaller pool, and on an afternoon in late November, a group of synchronized swimmers gave a wonderful exhibition. If Roberto were indeed sitting on a cloud, he would have enjoyed watching the young swimmers perform to the strains of Tchaikovsky, and he would have enjoyed watching Vera sweetly congratulating the girls afterward. Says Monchile Concepción, who was an associate of Roberto's, "Vera has been in charge for only a few months, but already you can see the difference, not only in Sports City, but in Vera. She has come alive, and so have we."
It's a shame, perhaps, that none of Clemente's sons grew up to play rightfield for the Pirates. But the kid across the street from 36 Calle Roberto Clemente did, and he feels that he owes it all to Vera. "She is like my mother, my second mother," says Orlando Merced. "Vera talked the Pirates into giving me a tryout along with Luis. But even then I wasn't sure I wanted to go through with it. The morning of the tryout, she rang our doorbell, came into the house and literally pulled me out of bed. I am what I am today because of Vera."
Primarily a first baseman, Merced played 17 games in rightfield last year for the Pirates. "What an honor that is," says Merced. "I don't remember Roberto when he was alive, yet I looked at his pictures so many times across the street that I feel as if I knew him. He has that look that speaks to you. He's like Elvis. He's still alive."
Merced, Vera, the three Robertos and their families were all at Three Rivers Stadium last Sept. 5 for "A Tribute to Roberto" before a game with Clemente's favorite opponent, the Dodgers. Also there were Joe Brown, Blass, Giusti, Sanguillen and a score of other former teammates. Out in right field, a homemade banner read ARRIBA ROBERTO!
There is now talk in Puerto Rico of Irving to raise the DC-7 that crashed on New Year's Eve 20 years ago. The effort smacks mostly of morbid curiosity. "They asked me about it," says Vera. "At first I didn't object, but I wonder if the money could not be better spent somewhere else. In a way I prefer things the way they are."
She stops speaking and smiles. "I'm thinking of a letter I got after the plane went down. It was from a sister at a Catholic school in Pittsburgh. She told me that Roberto fell into the water so that his spirit could be carried by the ocean to more places."