Can someone please get this man a handkerchief? It is the morning of the 1989 All-Star Game, and Ruben Sierra has just dissolved into tears, which—it being Sierra—is no great cause for alarm. Some people have short fuses; Sierra, the Texas Rangers' sentimental young rightfielder, has a quick spigot.
"He cries at the drop of a hat," says his friend Luis Mayoral, who is partly responsible for this particular torrent. Mayoral, whose sundry occupations include that of radio journalist, was interviewing Sierra, when without warning, the subject's lower lip commenced quivering. Then came the rains. "Was it something I said?" asked Mayoral.
"No," sobbed Sierra. "It's just that tonight is the most important game of my life and my mother won't be here to see me play." Alas, though it was Sierra's fourth season in the majors, his mother, Petra, had yet to attend one of his major league games. It having suddenly occurred to Sierra how awful that was. he had a good cry, and that was that. (Happily, his mother made it to a game in Arlington a week later.)
The above-blubbered remark may be more telling than the tears. Tonight is the most important game of my life. Now, no one w
ants to embarrass himself at an All-Star Game; still, most of the participants in the midsummer classic tend to approach it as more of a pleasant exhibition than a proving ground. Try telling that to Sierra. For this speedy, switch-hitting 24-year-old, it is not enough to be an All-Star. He feels he must stand out as an All-Star among All-Stars. Anything less, after all, would be unworthy of "the next Clemente," as he has been branded by the citizens of his native Puerto Rico. Roberto Clemente—El Magnifico, the Hall of Fame rightfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates who died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, at the age of 38—was the last great Puerto Rican major leaguer. His countrymen have awaited a successor ever since.
Orlando Cepeda, a seven-time All-Star first baseman with the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, enjoyed national-hero status in Puerto Rico in the '60s and '70s. But the Baby Bull took a nosedive from the pantheon in 1975, a year after he retired, when he went to prison for attempting to smuggle 165 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. (Cepeda is now a scout with the San Francisco Giants). Another native son, Sixto Lezcano, had one great year with the Milwaukee Brewers in '79—batting .321 with 28 home runs—but then fizzled. The Houston Astros' Jose Cruz, while a very good player, was never in a class with Clemente or Cepeda.
Puerto Ricans believe Sierra is their man. Even before May 1987, when Rangers manager Bobby Valentine persuaded Sierra to wear 21—Clemente's number—comparisons abounded. Sierra plays rightfield, Clemente's position. Facially, he bears a striking resemblance to the Hall of Famer. "Clemente had very distinctive, regal eyes," says Mayoral, who has written a book on Clemente. "Ruben's are very similar. Remarkably similar." Indeed, Sierra has been approached on the streets of Puerto Rico and asked if he is a member of Clemente's family. "Secretly," says Mayoral, "Ruben is very proud of this."
While steadfastly deflecting comparisons—"I play like Ruben Sierra, not Roberto Clemente," he says, unwittingly but precisely echoing Clemente's comments to reporters when they compared him with Willie Mays—Sierra is at the same time terribly anxious to prove himself worthy of such claims.
Last year was his breakthrough season. He hit 29 home runs and batted .306. The American League MVP race came down to Sierra and Robin Yount of Milwaukee. The day the selection was announced, Sierra appeared in Mayoral's office in San Juan, at the Rangers' behest, to be available to the press. Thirty or so reporters showed. When the bad news came down—Yount narrowly edged Sierra—Sierra responded in character. He wept. "Even for Ruben, it was bad," recalls Mayoral, referring to the sheer volume of lachrymal fluid spilled. "There was a big dark spot on his pants leg where the tears fell."
In the States, Yount's MVP victory was considered mildly controversial; on the island of Puerto Rico, it was condemned as a larcenous miscarriage of justice. Four months later, Sierra is still raw over the result. During lunch in a cafe in Old San Juan, he interrupts his assault on a plate of mashed plantains to make his case one more time. "I led the league in RBIs , total bases , slugging percentage [.543], extra-base hits  and triples , and I was there in all the major categories. He beat me in batting average and doubles." Sierra points out that he's not miffed at Yount—"He's a good guy"—but at the voters. They're the ones who denied him that MVP trophy he wanted so badly he had a spot picked out for it on the top of his TV at home. "I was so sure," he says, dolefully, picking at his food. "And then that happened."
Mayoral knows precisely how to console his young friend. "It was the same with Clemente at first," he says. "What you do is come back the next season and play harder, until they simply cannot ignore you."