Serving others runs in the Clemente family

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About 37 years after Roberto Clemente perished trying to help victims of a devastating earthquake in the Caribbean basin, his namesakes and his family are pitching in for Haiti.

"It's our nature," Roberto Clemente Jr. said yesterday as he organized fundraising efforts to deliver drinkable water to earthquake survivors who desperately need it. "It runs through our blood. Regardless of what it takes, we want to help. It's what the Clementes do."

From his base in New York City, Roberto Jr., one of three sons of the Pirates' Hall of Fame right fielder, was phoning his political and baseball connections in the United States to raise money for solar-powered machines that can purify contaminated water and make it drinkable.

"It's such an enormous undertaking that it makes you feel like your hands are tied," he said in a telephone interview. "We heard all the stories that they have water purification machines, but the machines run on diesel fuel and because there is no diesel fuel, they are sitting idle. So when we asked what can we do, we thought of these solar-powered devices. They can be up and running in 20 minutes. With water, people can survive. But each one costs like $125,000."

Meanwhile, when the Clemente family gathered for a baby shower Sunday in Puerto Rico, Roberto Luis Clemente, son of Luis, a brother of Roberto Jr., was absent. He had gone instead to San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, where his grandfather once played baseball, to help pack medical goods and other supplies bound for Haiti under a relief effort organized by the Puerto Rican government.

"We call him Robbie. When I asked where Robbie was and they told me he was helping out, I said, 'That's good,' " said Vera Clemente, widow of the late baseball player. "As soon as this earthquake happened, it broke our hearts."

The story reverberates across the ages for those who recall the events of Dec. 31, 1972.

Just months after belting his 3,000th career hit in what would be his final regular season at-bat at Three Rivers Stadium, Roberto was consumed by the task of helping Nicaragua, which had been rattled by a quake. He had helped send three mercy flights, but horror stories surfaced that the Nicaraguan government was hoarding relief supplies. To make sure that the goods got through, he climbed aboard a fourth flight.

It cost him his life.

Shortly after takeoff, his improperly loaded plane plunged into the azure Caribbean waters, and his body was never recovered. A bond of heartbreak forever spans his island country and what he called his "second home" in Pittsburgh, where there is a Clemente bridge and a statue of him outside the park where the Pirates now play.

The story had more chapters, however.

In 2004, while working with a New York-based charity called Project Club Clemente, Roberto Clemente Jr. raised money and collected medical supplies that he planned to deliver on the 32nd anniversary of his father's death. This flight for humanity was billed as Roberto's last at-bat.

"I was 7 years old the last time I saw him, and I had a premonition he was going to die in a plane crash. For many years, I felt guilty because I didn't do enough to stop him," said Roberto Jr., a commentator with the Spanish-speaking arm of ESPN. "I really felt the need to finish the job he started. I remember thinking, 'Dad, don't worry, I will get you there.' "

But fate intervened after the Asian tsunami of 2004. Inspired by his father's humanitarian spirit, he postponed that symbolic flight and instead diverted two tons of supplies and $18,000 to help tsunami victims.

Undeterred, Roberto Jr. followed through the next year. On Dec. 31, 2005, he boarded a plane in Puerto Rico and delivered the long-awaited supplies to Nicaragua. He was 39, one year older than his father was when he died.

"My mom was a little nervous. I was a little nervous. But this was something I needed to do. It was very, very emotional. I felt that my father's soul could finally rest in peace. He always said that if you have an opportunity to make things better and you don't, you're wasting your time on Earth," said Roberto Jr., who will become a grandfather in March.

For those who want to help with the Haitian relief effort, the Clemente family suggests that donations be made to the International Red Cross, which can best determine what goods are in greatest demand.

In previous years, the grounds of Clemente Sports City, a complex that was built in The Great One's honor, became a staging area for relief supplies. Currently, it is being renovated, but Mrs. Clemente is heartened that supplies are being collected at shopping centers and stadiums throughout Puerto Rico before they are shipped -- not flown -- to Haiti.

"We are glad to help, but the people will need much more," Mrs. Clemente said.

The late announcer Bob Prince once described Clemente-inspired rallies with the Spanish word arriba, which roughly translates to "arise!" or "charge!" Memory banks shaken by internal quakes can't help but note that the spirit of No. 21 still awakens.

"For me, he's always with us," Mrs. Clemente said. "He died the way he lived -- helping others."

It's what Clementes do.

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at . First Published January 19, 2010 5:00 AM


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