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
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
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.)
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.