- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

In one of those cruel ironies history burdens us with from time to time, that unspeakable tragedy in South Asia — a powerful earthquake combined with a deadly tsunami — occurred 32 years after another earthquake devastated another part of the world and bred a hero — a baseball player.

This latest quake has created a chance for new heroes: other baseball players and stars from other sports as well.

It was Dec. 23, 1972, when an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale struck Managua, Nicaragua, leaving a quarter-million people homeless. Roberto Clemente, then one of the brightest stars in baseball, stepped forward and became a leader and a hero.

Clemente never was the type to stand by when others faced a crisis. He once said, “Any time you have an opportunity to make things better and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on this Earth.”

For Clemente, this was just such an opportunity. He was willing to risk his life and his career as one of the greatest players in baseball to fly to the aid of the victims of that earthquake. He had just reached one of baseball’s milestones — his 3,000th hit — in his last time at bat in the 1972 season. He got the hit, a double off Jon Matlack of the New York Mets, on Sept. 30.

For Clemente, that 3,000th hit was the crowning achievement in a brilliant career lasting 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was voted to the National League All-Star team 12 times and won 12 Gold Glove awards as the best rightfielder in the league. He won the league’s batting championship four times and was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1966 and the MVP of the World Series in 1971.

Three months after getting that 3,000th hit, the earthquake overpowered Nicaragua, and Clemente knew what he had to do. He led a relief effort in his native Puerto Rico that collected 16,000 pounds of food, clothing and medicine. Eight days after the quake, Clemente and other volunteer workers boarded a DC-7 at San Juan. It was New Year’s Eve.

Only minutes after takeoff, the cargo on board the plane shifted. One engine caught fire, and the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean seconds later. Clemente perished. He was 38.

Just as he was a hero so many times on a baseball field, Roberto Clemente became an instant hero after that fatal crash on his humanitarian mission. The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its requirement for a five-year waiting period for a player to be voted into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown and instead voted Clemente into its galaxy of stars immediately. A new award for humanitarian service to a player’s fellow human beings was established, now known as the Roberto Clemente Award.

Now the same opportunity awaits today’s baseball players, and those in football, basketball and hockey. Together they can do as Clemente did. They don’t have to spend a lot of time collecting food, medicine and clothing. Instead, in this age of seven-figure annual salaries, they can collect large sums of money for designated organizations involved in international relief — the Red Cross and others. Officials involved in coping with the disaster, said to be the largest natural disaster ever recorded, say their greatest need is simply: money.

With all the multimillionnaires in America’s various team sports as well as those playing the individual sports such as tennis and golf, this is the time for the players and their unions to stand up and be counted, along with coaches, managers and owners.

Now is the time to raise millions of dollars from these individuals, their teams, their unions, their leagues and their sports — Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and their counterparts.

For that matter, the television networks and cable systems can also contribute relieving the suffering of their fellow human beings in the 12 countries whose men, women and children are the innocent victims of last week’s deadly disaster.

It takes only one professional athlete or one owner or one network executive with a heart and a conscience to start such an international drive. Others may well fall into line quickly.

This time, with the 32nd anniversary of Clemente’s death last week, is the perfect moment for someone to step forth and start this urgently needed humanitarian effort, heeding Clemente’s sobering reminder that not doing so means “you are wasting your time on this earth.”

Who will be the new Roberto Clemente?

Bill Gilbert is the best-selling author of 21 books, including eight on baseball. He is a former Washington sportswriter and marketing director for the expansion Washington Senators. His columns appear regularly on his Web site, www.wordsofthegame.com.

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