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The Meaning of Roberto Clemente
April 10, 2006
Forty schools, two hospitals and scores of parks and ball fields, from Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh, carry his name. To understand why, you have to know how he died
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April 10, 2006

The Meaning Of Roberto Clemente

Forty schools, two hospitals and scores of parks and ball fields, from Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh, carry his name. To understand why, you have to know how he died

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Long past midnight in Managua, Nicaragua, Roberto Clemente could not sleep. It was the same wherever he was: his apartment in Pittsburgh, his house atop a hill in R�o Piedras, Puerto Rico, his seat on the team plane on late-night flights, his hotel rooms on the road. He might find rest after sunrise, under the covers, with the air conditioner turned full blast and the drapes shut and taped to the wall so no light could penetrate the room. Or he might doze off at the stadium before a game, in some subterranean chamber, dark and cool. But the hours from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. were another matter. Sleep rarely came to him then, and if by chance he did nod off, he might be startled awake by one of the nightmares that had been haunting him lately. In one he was going down with a crashing plane. � His wife, Vera, knew all about these bad dreams. She knew that he looked for omens and that he believed he would die young.

On this night, Nov. 15, 1972, Roberto was at the Hotel Inter-Continental, a soulless modern pyramid that rose on a slope above Managua. His friend Osvaldo Gil had the adjacent room, and at Clemente's insistence they kept the door between the two chambers open so they could come and go like family. They talked deep into the night, Roberto down to his boxer shorts, his sculpted mahogany torso at age 38 still evoking a ballet dancer's, with muscled shoulders rippling down to a 30-inch waist. The two men spoke about baseball and their hopes for Puerto Rico's team at the 20th amateur world championships, which were to begin in Nicaragua at noon that day. Gil was president of Puerto Rico's amateur baseball federation and had persuaded Clemente to come along and manage the island's team.

So much had happened since Gil had first caught sight of Clemente more than 20 years earlier. Roberto was in high school, starring for the Juncos Mules in Puerto Rico's top amateur league. Gil sat in the bleachers of the park in Clemente's hometown, Carolina, and watched this kid hum a throw from deep centerfield, the ball seeming to pick up speed as it flew toward the infield and then sailed over the third baseman's head. Even a wild throw by Roberto Clemente was a work of art.

From there Clemente went on to 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, two World Series championships, four batting titles, an MVP award, 12 Gold Gloves and exactly 3,000 hits. The beautiful fury of his game enthralled all of baseball. He was an incandescent figure--agitated, sentimental, selfless, haunted and intensely proud--who had become a symbol of Puerto Rico and all of Latin America, leading the waves of Spanish-speaking players coming north to the majors. And he was not done yet. He believed he had at least two good years left.

A ballplayer's routine is simple: eat, sleep, goof around, play. Many athletes are unaware of anything else, but Clemente had a restless intelligence and was always thinking about life. He had an answer for everything, his own blend of logic and superstition. If you want to stay thin, he told Gil, don't drink water until two hours after you eat rice, so it won't expand in your stomach. If you want to keep your hair, don't shower with hot water; why do you think they scald chickens before plucking their feathers? If you want to break out of a slump, make sure you get at least three swings at the ball every time up; with a total of at least 12 cuts in four at bats per game, all you need is one good swing to get a hit.

But it wasn't all body and baseball. Clemente could also talk politics. His sentiments were with the poor. His heroes were Martin Luther King Jr. and Luis Mu�oz Mar�n, the FDR of Puerto Rico. He did not understand how people could stash millions in banks while others went hungry. Gil, exhausted, would have to beg off, or Clemente would yak until dawn.

The next morning, before breakfast, Clemente would be out enacting his own modest wealth redistribution plan. He exchanged a $20 bill for a bagful of coins and searched out poor people. To the needy strangers he encountered in Managua he asked, What's your name? How many in your family? Then he handed them coins, two or three or four, until his bag was empty. A short old man carrying a machete reminded Roberto of his father, Don Melchor. A boy without shoes reminded him of Mart�n el Loco, a character back in Carolina.

During his travels with the Pirates in the U.S., Clemente often visited sick children in National League cities. The hospital visits were rarely publicized. One morning in Nicaragua he took Gil and a few players to El Retiro hospital. There he met a wheelchair-bound 12-year-old named Julio Parrales, who had lost one leg and mangled the other playing on railroad tracks.

Clemente was often somber and reserved, cautious about letting strangers get close to him. But if something about you touched him, he would take you into his family. When he saw Julio, he knelt by the wheelchair and said that at the next world tournament Julio would be Puerto Rico's batboy. "Don't worry, we are going to help you," he vowed, and he told Gil they had to raise $700 for Julio's prosthetic legs. Each player on the Puerto Rican team chipped in $10, the Cubans donated $50, and Clemente provided the rest.

After the three-week amateur championships, which were won by Cuba, Clemente flew back to Puerto Rico on Dec. 8 loaded down with gifts for his sons--Robertito, Luisito and Ricky--and other relatives. In R�o Piedras he loaded his family into his car to go visit his parents at the house he'd bought for them in Carolina. The boys were excited, the great ballplayer was exuberant--a Horner harmonica held by a neck brace hummed and wailed at his lips--and the newest member of the family, a spider monkey purchased in Nicaragua, screeched and scampered across the shoulders and legs of the little ones as the gold Cadillac Eldorado rolled down the streets of Roberto Clemente's hometown.

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