SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico.
It has been more than 30 years since Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash off the coast of San Juan on New Year’s Eve 1972 while trying to bring supplies to earthquake victims to Nicaragua.
Despite all of that time and all of the great Puerto Rican ballplayers since then Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez and Roberto Alomar Roberto Clemente is still the face of baseball in Puerto Rico.
“He is our angel,” Alomar said. “Clemente meant so much to me. He opened a lot of doors for Puerto Rican players and was the best player that Puerto Rico has ever produced. It is special to have the Roberto Clemente name alive here in Puerto Rico.”
And Alomar has done his best to continue Clemente’s legacy, visiting Roberto Clemente Sports City in nearby Carolina. There, he spoke to more than 400 boys and girls from baseball and softball teams around the island as part of the “Breaking Barriers” program, which teaches children to overcome obstacles in life. The program was founded by Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, who also was on hand to speak to the children.
Alomar, the New York Mets second baseman, was back in his native land for a four-game series against the Montreal Expos, part of baseball’s plan to play 22 of the Expos’ “home” games in San Juan rather than Montreal. He covered life’s ABCs, somewhat of a tradition when athletes talk to children. “I told them that in life if you want to reach your goals, you have to work hard,” he said. “When I was a young kid, I worked hard to be where I am today. You have to stay away from the bad things like drugs and alcohol and try to live a good life. It is important to stay in school so you can have a degree.”
All decent sentiments, obviously. But it wasn’t delivered with the same sort of passion as the man whose memory built the sports complex in which Alomar spoke. Perhaps no one, though, can combine the elegance of Clemente the player and the eloquence of Clemente the humanitarian. After all, he did take off in an overloaded plane with a history of maintenance problems because he felt compelled to get the supplies he collected through donations to Nicaragua.
That is why, even though a generation has passed since the last time Clemente played for the Pittsburgh Pirates he got his 3,000th career hit on the last day of the 1972 season his voice still resonates on this island.
Vera Clemente was pleased to see Alomar make his appearance. The Hall of Famer’s widow was always a partner in Clemente’s causes and since his death has committed her life to seeing his dreams realized the Roberto Clemente Sports City.
“This was the place that Roberto wanted to build for the youth,” she said. “After he died, I told myself I have to work for it and try to make a reality of the sports city he wanted to build. If I try hard and it doesn’t happen, then at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I tried hard.”
She fulfilled his dream with a complex about a mile from the airport. There are seven baseball fields, batting cages, tennis courts, a track, basketball and volleyball facilities, plus a pool. The complex brings in an estimated 300,000 people a year, from adults renting facilities for games and outings to sports camps for underprivileged children.
However, the complex has fallen on hard times lately, and some of the facilities are in a state of disrepair. Government officials gave the 304-acre farm site to the family shortly after Clemente’s death to help get it started on fulfilling the dream. The government now gives the family about $700,000 annually to contribute to the operating costs. But those costs are $1.3million a year, and despite donations the complex is struggling financially. They are hoping a proposed $135million plan for a golf course and hotel in the complex will help generate revenue.
“Sports City could do so much more and be more self sufficient,” said Luis Clemente, one of Roberto’s sons and one of the directors of the foundation that operates the facility. “But we need to improve the facilities. We need to look at our alternatives to make things happen. We have the capability, but right now we need help.”
Not all the efforts in Clemente’s name are so noble. The mayor of San Juan came to the family not long ago with a proposal on behalf of some private entity: It wanted to raise from the ocean floor the plane that Clemente went down in and make it into some sort of tourist enterprise.
Tasteless? Of course, and the family declined. But it is another measure of the strength of Clemente’s presence here.
Expos manager Frank Robinson played against Clemente, who had a career batting average of .317 and won four batting titles. “He was a player you couldn’t take your eyes off of,” Robinson said.
They still can’t take their eyes off Roberto Clemente in Puerto Rico.