Even after 20 years, his image comes home like one of his throws to the plate, so strong and true it makes you smile.
Steve Blass, his friend and teammate, is smiling. "He is standing on second base," says Blass, who is now a broadcaster for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "This is after he doubled off Jon Matlack for his 3,000th hit. He has one foot on the bag, and his hands are on his hips. The fans are cheering wildly, but he is just standing there, like a statue, the essence of dignity and pride and grace. That is my freeze-frame of him, how I picture him to this day."
For others, in Pittsburgh or Puerto Rico or anywhere in baseball, he is making one of his leaping catches against the rightfield wall. Or maybe they remember how he would slam on the brakes after running full tilt down the first base line, or his underhand fling to second after a routine fly ball. Or perhaps it is that sublime moment whenever he would step into the batter's box and rotate his neck before wielding that improbably enormous bat.
Roberto Clemente Walker, who looms so large in so many memories, was a small man really, just 5'11" and 175 pounds. His hands, though, were huge. Says his friend, the Texas Rangers' assistant director of public relations, Luis Mayoral, "The size of his hands was exceeded only by the size of his heart. One of my lasting memories of Roberto is also my last. Four days before he flew off to Nicaragua with relief supplies for the earthquake victims there, he was at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, moving bags of goods, cartons of clothes. He could have just lent his name to the relief effort or done a public-service announcement. But there was Roberto, pardon the expression, working his ass off, and he had this look of determination. The same look he wore on the field at Three Rivers Stadium."
Three thousand hits. Three Rivers Stadium. The number 3 comes up often in the life and death and even the afterlife of Roberto Clemente. He batted third most of his career. He hit .300 or better in 13 seasons. He shares the modern major league record for triples in a game, which is, of course, three. He led the Pirates to three straight division titles (1970-72) and batted .333 in the 1971 National League Championship Series. He chose the uniform number 21 because that's how many letters are in his full name; but the 2 and the 1 also add up to 3. And when his plane went down three hours before 1973, he left behind three sons, all of whom were named Roberto, as well as his beloved and loving wife, Vera.
"He was a good father, a good son and a good husband," says Vera. She is sitting in the living room of the beautiful home they shared on a hill in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, overlooking San Juan, including Luis Muñoz Marín Airport. Even if the house weren't on Calle Roberto Clemente, you could not miss it: On the green slope below the house are white rock formations of a glove, a ball, a bat and the number 21. Inside, there is a portrait of Clemente on virtually every wall, and scattered about the house are his 12 Gold Gloves, as well as other trophies. Many of the ceramic lamps and decorative objects Clemente liked to make as a hobby are still there, and so is the pool table, which sometimes doubled as his impromptu chiropractic clinic.
"I see him all the time," Vera says, "mostly in his quiet moments. He is playing with the kids, working on his ceramics, even shampooing this rug. He was much more than a baseball player, you know. Momen—that's what we called him—was a wonderful man. He would rather be late for a meeting with the governor than pass by a stranger who needed help with a tire. He couldn't read music, but he could play the organ. He even wrote poetry.
"I remember once, it was a Father's Day game in Pittsburgh, and he was sitting in his uniform, writing something on the envelope that the children's card had come in. He was composing verses, a beautiful poem entitled ¿Quién Soy?—Who Am I? Let me write it down for you."
Who Am I?
I am a small point in the eye of the full moon.
I only need one ray of the sun to warm my face.
I only need one breeze from the
Alisios to refresh my soul.
What else can I ask if I know that my
sons really love me?