Recalling a hero: Clemente's legacy lives on with Pirates

Forty years after his untimely death, many remember Roberto Clemente, both as a man and a humanitarian


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The sports world is rich with hyperbole.

Athletes are gladiators and warriors. Games are battles and stadiums are battlefields. Those who can throw the hardest and run the fastest are casually called heroes.

But what happens when an in-game hero becomes a real one?

Forty years ago Monday, Roberto Clemente boarded a plane to deliver humanitarian supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Furious that prior deliveries had been confiscated by a corrupt Nicaraguan government, Clemente decided to travel with another shipment of supplies to ensure the people who needed help would get it.

But shortly after a nighttime takeoff from San Juan International Airport, the DC-7 that carried Clemente, 38, banked left and plummeted into the sea. All five people onboard died.

That tragedy helped define Clemente's lasting legacy. But it also impacted countless others -- those who knew him personally, those who admired him professionally and those of future generations he would come to inspire.

These are some of their stories.

The son

Roberto Clemente Jr. bubbled with excitement when he woke up at his family's Puerto Rico home on New Year's Eve. He was looking forward to a party the family was throwing later that night, and many of his friends from the United States were on their way.

Clemente Jr., who was 7, peered into his parents' room, but no one was there. He found his father, Roberto Clemente, and his mother, Vera, talking at the dining room table. When his mother turned to leave, an ugly feeling filled Clemente Jr.

"It was a message saying 'Don't get on the plane because the plane is going to crash,'" he said.

The Clemente family had a busy day ahead of them -- Vera Clemente had to pick up party guests and get the house ready, and Roberto Clemente had to load supplies at the airport. So Clemente Jr. and his young siblings went to his grandmother's house so his parents could tend to their tasks.

That morning at the dining room table was the last time Clemente Jr. saw his father. He wept as he said goodbye.

"He said 'I'll see you when I get back,'" Clemente Jr. recalled.

"And I said 'No, I'm never going to see you again.'

"I was very sure about what I was saying. I felt it. I always look back, and in my mind, I wish I could have done something else. But I'm 7 years old. What else could I do? I went through my life feeling guilty that I didn't do more."

That night, he heard his mother scream through the phone at his grandmother's house, and he knew what had happened.

It would be three days after his father's death until Clemente Jr. finally returned home. When he did, it was madness. There were hundreds of mourners, police cars on the streets and helicopters circling.

A family friend grabbed Clemente Jr. and led him on a walk.

"You're the man of the house now," the friend told him.

Since that day, Clemente Jr. has been a caretaker for his mother and his two younger brothers. He has also been a caretaker of his father's legacy.

The family has worked closely with producers on a movie, "Baseball's Last Hero," which will open in 2013. Awards and charities in Clemente's name live on, in part, because of Clemente Jr. and his family.

"That's really a credit to Dad for choosing the perfect woman to be his wife and the mother of his kids," Clemente Jr. said. "She has kept his legacy and his spirit alive. She, unto this day, she's still married to Dad."

A close call

The community of Winter Ball baseball players in Puerto Rico was a small one, said Tom Walker, and just about everybody involved knew Roberto Clemente was gathering relief supplies to send to Nicaragua. Clemente bought newspaper ads and even appeared on television, pleading directly to Puerto Ricans to donate to the cause.

Walker was 24 and had just finished his first season as a major league ballplayer. He met Clemente, an idol of his, one year earlier while playing his first season of Winter Ball. In 1971 he played for Clemente's team, but this year he was an opponent.

Thousands of miles from his family on New Year's Eve and with little to do otherwise, Walker spent the day helping Clemente. First, he loaded supplies from the stadium onto trucks to be delivered to the airport. Then, he drove to the airport to help load supplies onto the four-engine plane.

"They were loading it to the Nth degree," Walker said. "Every spot on that plane, every space was being loaded with goods, clothes, whatever."

The plane was overloaded, crash investigators later concluded, but Walker said it never occurred to anyone helping with supplies that it might be unsafe.

When he finished loading supplies, Walker asked Clemente if he could join him on the flight. He didn't have anything to do that night, other than celebrate the New Year, and knew it would not be a very long trip.

"No," Clemente told him. "Go party."

"There was no arguing with the man," Walker said.

So, Walker headed back to his car to leave the airport.

"There are things that happen to all of us in our minds that you can't get rid of," he said. "That's one of them -- leaving the airplane, turning around and looking back at them shoring up that airplane. I remember waving to Roberto, and he waved back. And that was the end of it."

Years later, Walker met a Pittsburgh girl named Carolyn and settled down in Western Pennsylvania. In 1985, the couple gave birth to a son, Neil, one of the top young players on the Pirates' roster today.

"Sitting there at the ballpark, I can't go to the park without thinking about Roberto Clemente," Walker said. "It's not like I dwell on it or anything, but I don't think Neil can either. We've talked about it a little bit.

"If you think about where the dugout is, he comes out of the dugout, he goes to second base, the Clemente Wall is right in front of him. He knows if I would have gotten on that aircraft, I would be gone. There would be no Neil."

Waiting for a friend

A group of ballplayers were standing around, telling stories when Manny Sanguillen arrived at about 9 p.m. to a New Year's Eve party in Puerto Rico. He wanted to jump into the conversation, but he remembered something his good friend Roberto Clemente had told him.

Take a minute to listen before jumping into a conversation, Sanguillen remembered his friend telling him, "So you don't look stupid."

Sanguillen and Clemente were teammates for six years, including 1971 when the team won the World Series.

It was at that moment, as Sanguillen was thinking about Clemente, that Pirates teammate Richie Zisk interrupted the group to say that an airplane must have crashed offshore because as he was heading to the party, he noticed a helicopter circling around.

Hours later, Sanguillen got a knock on his door from Luis Mayoral, a friend of Clemente's, who told Sanguillen that Clemente had died in that crash.

As dozens of friends and teammates arrived in Puerto Rico for Clemente's funeral, Sanguillen strapped on an oxygen tank to dive in the deep waters, hoping to find his friend alive.

Though parts of the plane were recovered, Clemente's body was never found.

Rough waters that day did not change Sanguillen's resolve. He believed he would find his friend alive. He stayed in Puerto Rico another two weeks and walked the beach daily, hoping he would find Clemente swimming ashore.

The young ballplayer

Shortly after waking up on New Year's Day, Clint Hurdle found his father in the family's living room in Merritt Island, Fla.

Hurdle, 15, expected to spend the holiday the same as he had for most of his youth -- watching the Rose Bowl Parade in the morning, eating turkey and catching a couple of college bowl games on TV. But before he could begin that routine, his father stopped him.

"Hey," Hurdle's father said, "I've got some bad news."

"At the age of 15, bad news -- you never know where that's going to go," Hurdle said. "But I said 'Dad, what is it?'

"He says 'Roberto Clemente was killed last night in a plane wreck.'"

By that time in his life, Hurdle was already thinking he might have a future as a baseball player. But he had been a fan of the game his entire life.

His love of the game was something he developed with his father, Clint Hurdle Sr. The elder Hurdle had his favorites, namely Yankee great Mickey Mantle. The younger Hurdle favored Tigers legend Al Kaline and Orioles hall of famer Brooks Robinson.

And they shared a fondness for Clemente. And as the news seeped in that Monday morning, the two shared some of their Clemente memories.

"We talked about 'Wow, he just got his 3,000th hit,'" Hurdle said.

"I won't say it had the same weight as when JFK passed, but it was one of those moments that I'll remember," Hurdle said. "My dad having that conversation with me, it was a very sad moment."

A few years later, Hurdle had developed as a ballplayer and as a fan of the game. Now he shared spring training diamonds with them. He asked questions of teammates and opposing players about some of the greats of the game -- Who had the best arm? Who had the best swing?

And when he traveled with the Kansas City Royals from Fort Myers to Bradenton, he sought out some of the Pirates who played with Clemente.

"The message came back the same, never varied," he said. "'Focused, prepared, played with a passion.'"

Since he has been hired as the Pirates' manager Hurdle has been on a mission to "re-bond" this city with its baseball team. It's a challenging task for a club that lost its most beloved superstar 40 years ago and hasn't had a winning season in 20.

But Hurdle knows what that standard he would like to meet. The Pirates, he said, were the crown jewel of the National League. And a lot of that had to do with No. 21.

Hero to many

Starling Marte was born in 1988 in the Dominican Republic. But he grew up like millions of other Latin American kids idolizing a ballplayer who had died decades earlier.

The name "Clemente" has special meaning in Pittsburgh and is revered throughout the country. But in Latin American countries, especially those where baseball is an obsession, "Clemente" is a source of pride.

Clemente was born in Puerto Rico. But he died while trying to aid another Latin American country and now, the entire region embraces him.

Marte and the Venezuelan-born Jose Tabata, both outfielders for the Pirates, have talked in the past about what an honor it is to play wearing "Pirates" across their chests, the only jersey Clemente wore in 18 major league seasons. Tabata even has "21" tattooed on his chest.

Some older friends of Marte helped to teach him about Clemente -- his work off the field and his success on it. Some were old enough to remember Clemente reach his 3,000th hit -- the final hit of his career -- in 1972.

"It was a very sad ending, the way he died for being the type of player he was and knowing a lot of people weren't going to watch him play again," Marte said through Luis Silverio, a senior advisor to the Pirates' Latin American operations.

Marte has a few older friends from Puerto Rico that have spoken to him about the Clemente legacy. They talk about the last hits he had.

Clemente's shadow looms large for all Latin American players but especially in Pittsburgh, where a 21-foot wall and a big yellow bridge bear his name. Marte can see both every time he steps to the plate.

"I want to try to be the best player I can, close to what Clemente was," Marte said. "I want to do the little things I heard he did as a ballplayer."

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Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1722 or on Twitter: @msanserino.


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