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Rising to the Top of the Game
Austin Murphy
April 16, 1990
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April 16, 1990

Rising To The Top Of The Game


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Ignoring Sierra is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Not satisfied to own just any Mercedes, Sierra held out for one with a gold grill, the better to catch the Puerto Rican sunshine and dazzle onlookers. For some social occasions, he has been known to deck himself out in $18,000 worth of bullion. For lunch today, he sports a doubloon-sized gold pendant, molded into the face of Christ—a Christ with ruby eyes and a diamond-encrusted halo. Such trappings are the badges of honor for a poor boy who made good.

Sierra was five years old when Clemente died in 1972. Some predicted the next Clemente would be, well, the next Clemente: Roberto Jr. The younger Clemente, known as Robertito, played Rookie League ball in the Pirates system, but was slowed by bad knees. Now 24, he is looking for a job in the minors. But as early as Little League, Robertito was upstaged by a poor kid from the Jardines Sellés housing projects in San Juan, a young pitcher named Ruben who struck everyone out and hit baseballs so hard he deformed them.

"I remember even then, Ruben was very anxious to make it to the major leagues," says Vera Clemente. Roberto's widow. The Clementes have known Sierra since he was nine, when Vera would drive from their tonier neighborhood in Rio Piedras to pick up Sierra in Jardines Sellés and take him to practice. In 1976, Sierra and Robertito were on the same 10-and-under-team that traveled to Pittsburgh and attended a Pirate game. In a museum in the bowels of the stadium, the boys stood beneath a life-sized wax statue of Clemente, and upon pressing a button, heard a recording of his voice. At least one of the youngsters found the experience overwhelming. "I cried," recalls Sierra. "I kept asking myself, Why did he have to die?"

At the age of four, Sierra lost his own father, Angel. After being seriously injured in a car accident, Angel was in the hospital in intensive care. One night he became thirsty. Unable to hail a nurse, he pulled out the tubes that tethered him to his bed and stumbled off to get a drink. On his way back to bed, he collapsed and died.

Ruben's mother worked as a janitor in a hospital to support her three sons and a daughter. Even as slums go, the Jardines Selles projects are rough. There is a flourishing cocaine trade, and violent crime comes with the territory. Carlos Sierra, five years older than Ruben, was not as strong as his brothers. He is currently in the state penitentiary in Rio Piedras, serving a four-year sentence for attempted murder. Ruben pays him weekly visits. "He's my brother, and I still love him," he says. "It's like baseball. Anyone can make an error." After a pause, Ruben adds, "He had a better arm than me." Last year, Sierra was able to move his mother out of Jardines Selles, into a house of her own in Rio Piedras. It was an emotional day for Ruben, and when the tears came, he didn't fight them.

Sierra's successful escape from the projects was aided by El Magnifico himself Clemente's most visible legacy to Puerto Ricans is the Roberto Clemente Sports City, a 303-acre park outside San Juan. Sierra spent countless hours there honing his baseball skills, before being signed by Rangers scout Oscar-Gomez. His progress as a pro was rapid, especially after he was taught to switch-hit. In his first year in the majors, in a game against the Minnesota Twins, Sierra homered twice, once from each side of the plate. The following season, he had 30 home runs and 109 RBIs. His numbers tailed off in '88, but after attacking the weights over the winter, he turned in last year's monster season.

It is not surprising that Sierra picked up switch-hitting so quickly. One of his pastimes—when he is not crooning the lyrics of Puerto Rican singing stars Tito Rodriguez or Jose Feliciano—is imitating the stances of other major leaguers. His impersonations are unerring, as if he were some kind of mimic savant. Now in a knock-kneed crouch, wagging his bat menacingly, he becomes Rickey Henderson. From the other side of the plate, pigeon-toed, his hands clenching and unclenching the bat, he out-Mattinglys Don Mattingly. Now going through his windup, delivering, swaggering toward the dugout, glove over left quadriceps just so, he is a flawless Nolan Ryan.

And consciously or not, when he bats righthanded. Sierra evokes Clemente. It is not a duplicate image: Clemente wielded a fat-handled 36-ounce bat, Sierra swings a 32; Clemente had an aggressive, nearly lunging swing, Sierra's is less exaggerated. At 6'1", 210 pounds. Sierra has Clemente by two inches and 35 pounds. Still, as Mayoral says, "Put him in a Pirates uniform and stand 150 feet away, and it would be scary."

During the 20-minute drive from Old San Juan to Sierra's home in Carolina (where Clemente was born), he is asked about the constant comparisons with Clemente. Mayoral poses the question in Spanish, then translates Sierra's answer: "The comparison creates in his mind a sense of responsibility. Not to surpass Clemente—this is not a competition—but to succeed continuously. Who knows? By the time Ruben retires, his numbers could be better, could be worse, but he will have honored himself and Clemente with his effort."

Noble words. A few minutes later, as Sierra hurtles down the 65th Infantry Avenue at 50 mph, he swerves into an enormous puddle in order to splash some pedestrians. Laughing, Sierra explains, "When I was a kid going to school, this used to happen to me all the time." For the moment, any comparisons with Clemente—who died flying relief supplies to victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake—seem slightly strained.

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