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The Record, Bergen County, NJ

CLEMENTE'S LIVING LEGACY ; Roberto Jr. Still Haunted By His Father's Tragic Death


April 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
North Jersey Media Group Inc. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Not a day elapses when Roberto Clemente Jr. isn't reminded of the legacy bestowed upon him by his father -- the greatest baseball player Puerto Rico has ever known, and perhaps its most tragic figure.

All Clemente has to do is introduce himself -- just say the name - - and people stop dead cold, mid-sentence, and relive the day of his father's death.

"Everyone seems to know where they were, what they were doing, the exact spot when they heard the news," Clemente said. "People share this memory every day. I've had grown men cry right in front of me. It's something I've grown to live with, because of who my father was."

The date was Dec. 31, 1972, when the Pirates' outfielder died on a mercy mission from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua. Clemente's plane, overloaded with relief supplies to help the 250,000 victims of an earthquake in Managua, -crashed just one mile after takeoff.

The younger Clemente, now 37, has never forgotten the events of his father's death, nor has he forgiven himself for letting his father leave. Roberto Jr. said, "We were having a big New Year's eve party, and I walked into the room where everyone was. I said to my father, 'Don't get on that plane.'

"My whole life, I've had premonitions about things. This was my first. I just had a feeling about my father's death. My mother yelled at me, 'Don't talk like that.' But I just knew.

"I begged him not to go, but he didn't listen. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, 'Don't worry, I'll be back.' I said, 'No you won't.' How was a 7-year-old boy supposed to stop a grown man from making that trip? He left, and when the phone rang. ... I just knew."

The memories -- and the pain they bring -- are especially poignant this weekend, as the Mets and Expos begin a four-game series here. This is part of Major League Baseball's quest to globalize the game, shifting 22 of Montreal's home games to the island where Clemente was born.

There's no doubt the outfielder would be proud of Puerto Rico's growing stature in the game: This year's opening-day rosters boasted 38 Puerto Rican natives, including the Mets' Roberto Alomar, Toronto's Carlos Delgado, and Florida's Ivan Rodriguez.

But Clemente was, and still is, the finest talent the island has ever known. He finished with exactly 3,000 hits -- the final one notched on the last day of the '72 season, off the Mets' Jon Matlack -- and a .317 career average. Clemente won 12 Gold Glove awards, prompting Maury Wills to once observe: Clemente wasn't just better than Willie Mays, he was much better.

But if Roberto Jr. clings to his father's life -- and death -- at least he's not alone. At last count there were 10 schools in America named for Clemente, 16 American streets, and more than 200 ballparks. As Clemente's wife Vera recently told the Kansas City Star, "I think that it has to do more with the way he lived than with the way he played.

"Roberto was a great baseball player. But, after a while, people forget great baseball players. They cannot forget Roberto Clemente as a man. He died as he lived."

Looking back, Roberto Jr. said there were so many signs of his father's imminent demise -- all of them ignored. It was raining that day, and there'd been reports of three other plane crashes on the island.

Because of the New Year's holiday, most of San Juan's airport workers took the day off. The plane, which carried milk, medicine, and clothing among its cargo, was loaded by volunteers, creating an overload and weight-imbalance. Clemente said, "They tried to pack as much as they could." In their mercy, the workers doomed Clemente to his death.

Of the five people on board, only the pilot's body was found -- and it was decapitated. Investigators surmised that as the plane lost altitude, the cargo from the rear cascaded forward, crushing the passengers, Clemente included.

From that day forward, from the moment the phone rang in the Clemente household, Roberto Jr. has lived in a vacuum. He tried his hand at baseball in the Eighties, bouncing from the Phillies to the Orioles to the Venezuelan leagues, suffering from a knee injury and the expectations that accompanied his name.

"For a while, I didn't want to be Roberto Clemente Jr. anymore. I wanted a different name, because it made me feel so alone," he said. "No one knew what I felt. Not even my mother or my two [younger] brothers."

His sorrow turned Clemente to alcohol and eventually drugs -- a dual addiction that lasted until just three years ago. Finally, after a friend told Clemente, "you're a walking dead man" he found help at Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today, Clemente broadcasts games for ESPN Internacional, works with the Yankees' Spanish Radio Network, and as a founder of the RBI program in Puerto Rico -- bringing baseball to inner-city youth -- has finally found his peace.

Despite his eerie ability to predict the future, Clemente said, "It turns out this was my hidden gift all along. Helping kids."

It doesn't quite soften the hurt of losing his father -- or the guilt about the plane crash -- but Clemente knows this much: His father would be proud.

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