- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Clemente remembered the ox carts and the crippled boy. He had recently lined his 3,000th major league hit, a double, and he had a strong sense of his Latin fame. "If I go to Nicaragua, the stealing will stop," he said, beating a palm against his chest. "They would not dare to steal from Roberto Clemente."
A jet could have been used. The DC-7 was cheaper. A certified flight engineer could not be found to work on New Year's Eve. Instead, the third seat in the cockpit was occupied by an aircraft mechanic. Sixteen 60-pound bags of sugar were hastily loaded through the plane's forward door in the last minutes. Were they properly lashed down? According to witnesses, one engine seemed to sputter when the plane went down the runway at 9:20 p.m. A trained engineer, studying the engine analyzers that show the condition of each engine on a small green tube, can make an instant diagnosis. If necessary, he shouts, "Abort! Abort!" A mechanic lacks the flight experience to make such a decision.
The plane took off. Another engine coughed. On a tape of the plane's radio transmissions to the tower you can hear the pilot say without panic, "This is NC 500 comin' back around." It is thought that the pilot, a man named Hill, banked the plane steeply. It could have been that the bags of sugar shifted. In the blackness, NC 500 continued to bank and then slipped sideways into 12-foot waves at approximately 150 mph. The aircraft might as well have flown into a wall of concrete.
"It was so sad for all of us," said Luis Rodriguez Mayoral, a Pirate scout who guided me about his island. "In one year we lost two great heroes. Roberto Clemente and Don Pablo Casals. But do people remember? If they did, wouldn't Ciudad Deportiva be more than this by now?"
Latins have a gift for patient melancholy, but Mayoral brightened quickly. "I will show you, amigo, that there is nothing else sad about baseball on our island. Our island baseball is wonderful, �tu sabes?"
We drove Mayoral's Volkswagen through San Juan, on to a village called Guaynabo, then to Caguas, a small city located along a road lined by royal poincianas, a tree with rust-red flowers. We watched Little League ball in Carolina, now a suburb in the San Juan sprawl, and we saw amateurs play in Las Piedras (The Rocks), a town that did not even appear on my tourist map. I visited a saloon there called, for reasons nobody knows, The Guadalcanal Bar. Puerto Rican baseball is a joyous pastime played mostly for the wonders of the game.
"We have a problem." said Vic Power, the old major-leaguer, as he studied 14-year-olds on a cloudy day in Caguas. "We have much participation. Too much participation. Too many dreams of the major leagues. I see a good player. I have to tell him it is 10,000 to 1 he will not make the major leagues. Sometimes I have to tell them it is 100,000 to 1, because if you are both black and Puertorrique�o, they will not easily accept you. It will be very much more difficult."
Five years ago Power took an amateur team to Cuba, where Fidel Castro sought him out and spoke of having wanted to pitch in the major leagues. ( Early Wynn and Fidel Castro pitching on the same staff? It's a good thing not every dream comes true.)
Power's memories of playing as a black are cold and somewhat bitter. "It was very bad when I got to the States," Power said. "I am strong and not afraid, but I do not want to be murdered. When I first came to Florida for training in Fort Myers, one night I was afraid to cross the street. Three white men stood on the other side. I could see from the way they held themselves that it would be bad if we came close together.
"The light was green and they walked across the street. I stood in a doorway, and as you see. I am very black. I hoped they would not notice me. They did not. They passed. When the light was red, I went across the street.