Clemente All-Star tribute another touching moment

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Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Vera Clemente, widow of Pirates legend Roberto Clemente, receives the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award at the All-Star Game Tuesday.
Click photo for larger image.

Just beyond the bridge that bears his name, his statue has the rich, deep hue of an old penny except for the pinky finger and thumb of his right hand. Tykes and tots way too young to know who he was reach up to swing from the extended digits, and the perspiration and palm oils of tiny hands have worn away the patina to expose a golden color.

Like baseball sentimentalists, new generations of fans just won't let go of Roberto Clemente. And why should they?

Major League Baseball paused Tuesday night's All-Star game after the fourth inning while commissioner Bud Selig presented his widow with the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award.

It was another of those moments that should be preserved in time.

Vera Clemente steadied herself on field while standing arm-in-arm with Bill Mazeroski. It wasn't the first time Maz pinch-hit for his old teammate and fellow Hall of Famer. Back on that Saturday afternoon of Sept. 30, 1972, the day Clemente sealed his legacy by doubling for his 3,000th career hit, Mazeroski was called on to bat for Clemente in the fifth inning so Clemente could rest for the playoffs.

It was the last regular-season hit for Clemente, who died later that year trying to help friends in Nicaragua. After the country was devastated by an earthquake, Clemente organized a relief effort. He insisted on making a flight himself to make sure the supplies got through, but his plane crashed shortly after takeoff. His body was never recovered.

Mazeroski and Clemente were both finished with baseball after 1972. Mazeroski retired and was allowed to grow old with his grandchild. Clemente was killed violently and his greatness frozen in time.

During the award presentation Tuesday night, Ozzie Guillen washed away tears streaming down his face. The manager of the American League team, a man who just recently was ordered to have sensitivity training after a run-in with a sports writer, wept unashamedly during a tribute to the first Latin American player ever to be enshrined at Cooperstown.

A native of Venezuela, Guillen has an entire room in his home dedicated to the memory of Clemente, including a piece of the doomed plane. What's more, Guillen's middle son has the middle name Roberto in honor of the Pirates' right fielder.

"When this man walked on the field, you could tell just by looking at him that he was a real ballplayer," Guillen said.

When the White Sox came to town in late June for an interleague series with the Pirates, Guillen wore a cap with the No. 21 on it. At the time, he told baseball writers that he prayed to win the World Series last year so he could manage the AL team in the All-Star Game in Clemente's major-league city.

During All-Star week, he often wore a Clemente T-shirt. And during the All-Star Game, Guillen wore his heart on his sleeve.

"He was a Latino that opened doors for the rest of us," Guillen said after the game. "A lot of people remember Roberto because of the way he died. A lot of people remember Roberto for the way he played the game. What Roberto gave to the community, day in and day out, the way he showed up to the plate and the way he showed up to the ballpark, that's the way people should be taking steps in life [and] not just in life ... I always admired him."

After receiving the award on behalf of her late husband, Mrs. Clemente pointed to the heavens and said he was watching from above as he always is. Selig vowed that he would be remembered as long as the game is played.

In truth, Clemente was very much a presence at the All-Star Game. Players rode on a red carpet on the Clemente Bridge and drove by the Clemente statue, dedicated at the last All-Star Game in Pittsburgh in 1994. Players wore gold wristbands with the monogram of RCW for Roberto Clemente Walker, in the Latino tradition of having the mother's maiden name follow the surname, just the way it does in the corrected plaque in the Hall of Fame. Clemente's name and number are retired in PNC Park's ring of honor. The right field wall is 21 feet high as a subtle tribute.

Yesterday afternoon, when most of visitors had left town and city streets were returning to their usual patterns, a few stragglers gathered at the statue for one last snapshot of Clemente and the city he represented.

There is a current movement to retire Clemente's No. 21 in all ballparks the way MLB did with Jackie Robinson's No. 42 in 1997. The Web site www.retire21.org has been launched to collect signatures on a petition.

Just like the kids who reach up to grab the fingers of Clemente's statue, no one wants to let him go.

Pirates Minor-League Report
Wednesday's results

INDIANAPOLIS (48-40) was off.

ALTOONA (52-36) was off.

LYNCHBURG (37-50) was off.

HICKORY (41-48) won at Hagerstown, 7-6. RHP Luis Valdez (3-2, 3.88) allowed three runs, two earned, in five innings. RHP Justin Vaclavik (3.66) recorded the final out with the tying run on third for his seventh save. DH Jason Delaney (.304) went 3 for 5 with two RBIs. CF Andrew McCutchen (.269) went 0 for 5.

WILLIAMSPORT (7-12) lost to Brooklyn, 4-1. LHP Mike Felix (0-2, 3.18) allowed three runs on one hit and three walks in five innings. CF Alex Presley (.163) tripled in four at-bats and threw out a runner at home.

 

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1959.


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