Thursday, March 4, 2010

Clemente

The arc of his life unfolds like a parable.

He was a justly proud Latin player, at a time - two generations ago - when such players were few. His first name was Roberto, yet the Pittsburgh press, all-too-quick to Anglicize, dubbed him "Bobby." The would-be diminutive was not just incongruous; it was insulting.

His was a magnificent all-around game, based on flawless fielding, a rifle arm in right field, and a splendid combination of speed and power at the plate and on the basepaths. He led the Pirates to the World Series title in 1971 and, at the very end of the 1972 season, doubled in his final at bat for his 3,000th hit.

Only a few months later, on December 23, 1972, a massive earthquake hit Nicaragua, killing over 10,000 people and destroying the capital, Managua. To make this even worse, international aid could not get through to people in need because the dictatorship run by Anastasio Samosa was, as several authors have documented, a "kleptocracy."

Clemente took it upon himself to cut through confusion and government theft. He organized a relief mission, based in Puerto Rico, and on New Year's Eve, 1972, took off with four others in a small DC-7 plane loaded with food and supplies. Sadly, the plane crashed into the Caribbean soon after leaving the airport in San Juan.

Today, in the wake of the Hatian and Chilean earthquakes, the passion that drove his attempt to aid the earthquake victims in Nicaragua is a more timely example than ever. And the annual award given by Major Leage Baseball for humanitarian service is still rightly called the Roberto Clemente Award.

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