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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Clemente Sports City Falling Apart


February 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. All rights reserved. 

Just miles from where Roberto Clemente took off on a fatal mission of mercy for the survivors of a devastating 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake, there is the sweet sound of bat hitting ball and the ripple of children's laughter.

"This is the project my father was always talking about before he died," said Luis Clemente, president and CEO of the Roberto Clemente Sports City. "He wanted to help all Puerto Ricans form their character. He wanted to have scholarships to give them skills, not just in sports but all other activities. This was the place he wanted to create, that my mother dedicated her whole life to. This is his dream."

The 304-acre facility, located in the city where the late Pirates great and Hall of Famer was born, has seven baseball fields, a swimming pool and tennis courts, an open-sided building for basketball and volleyball, an outdoor track, and 10 batting cages where you get eight pitches for a quarter. It serves 300,000 visitors a year in seven communities and never turns away a poor kid. That's why it is shocking to see the broken-down white school bus with the shattered glass windows, the stripped seats, and empty beer bottles, baking in the Caribbean sun in the parking lot. Stencilled on the side of the bus are the words "Ciudad Deportiva de Roberto Clemente." Sports City of Roberto Clemente.

Despite the success of the program, Luis Clemente acknowledges the dream is in trouble. The bus that used to transport boys and girls to RCSC for swimming lessons broke down two months ago, there was no money to fix it, and then vandals attacked it, Clemente said. A sadness seeps into his voice as he discusses the bus. "That's not a way to pay back for all we've done," said Clemente, whose father died when he was 5 years old.

Roberto Clemente was not just the first Latin American player inducted into the Hall of Fame, he was also a human rights activist. He once said, "Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on earth." He died on New Year's Eve 1972 when a relief plane overloaded with food, medical supplies, and clothes, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico. Five people were killed. Clemente's body was never found.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico presented the Clemente family the RCSC site after his death and also provides $784,000 in aid annually. Operating costs are $1.2 million annually, but despite other donors, RCSC is in the red. Could it be forced to close? "It's a possibility," said Luis Clemente. "Last night I went without sleep trying to figure out how to make this work."

Clemente would like to expand RCSC in order to make it fiscally self-sufficient. He has hired a Boston architectural firm that has drawn up plans for an expanded sports city, including a new golf course that could service the nearby deluxe hotels of San Juan, a convention center, and a 300-room hotel that could headquarter visiting sports teams. To expand, the sports city needs the permission of the municipality of Carolina.

But Carolina has its own eight-building Roberto Clemente Sports Complex, including a sports school that is the biggest on the island. The mayor of Carolina claims relations with the Clemente family -- his widow, Vera, and three brothers -- are "good." Yet the first thing Mayor Jose Aponte does in an interview is complain that Carolina constructed a museum building at Clemente Sports City, yet no museum currently exists there. "I don't know what it's being used for," said Aponte. Clemente said its current use is as an office.

"We don't have the security to use it for a museum yet," said Clemente, whose family was one of the contributors to a massive Roberto Clemente exhibit at the swanky Museum of Puerto Rican Art in San Juan.

When informed about the image of a derelict bus representing Roberto Clemente's dream, Aponte was as direct as one of Clemente's throws from right field. "Let me tell you something," Aponte said. "That is not my business. Roberto Clemente Sports City is the business of a corporation. It's a private enterprise. It is not a public enterprise."

Told of Aponte's comments, Luis Clemente said, "It's no surprise. It hasn't been his business from Day One. We received no funding from the mayor's office." Added RCSC board member Lillybeth Rosario, "If this was Pittsburgh, they would never allow this to happen."

The Clemente family was insulted when Aponte approached them with a million-dollar plan to raise the wrecked plane from the ocean floor and put it on public display. Aponte said it was a private institution's idea. "They came to me and said, 'Could you help us,' and I told them, 'I could help you if the family of Roberto Clemente was willing to do that,' " said Aponte. The family was not. "Everybody is trying to make a buck off my father's name," said Luis Clemente.

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