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Los Angeles Times

Clemente's Legacy Is Told In Human Terms

By Ross Newhan

July 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - It is a quiet afternoon at Ciudad Deportiva Roberto Clemente. No youngsters on the baseball diamonds or basketball courts. No chatter from the running track or pool area.

Vera Clemente, keeper of the flame, first lady of Puerto Rican and Caribbean baseball, sits behind a desk in a small office at the sports city that was her late husband's dream and says it is time to take the dream to a new level, to realize the full potential and capability of the facility that opened in 1974, two years after Roberto Clemente died on New Year's Eve, 1972, when a DC-7 he had chartered to carry supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed shortly after takeoff from the San Juan airport.

Clemente was 37. A legend here in life, maybe bigger in death. Still, 31 years later, "a national hero," says Bengie Molina, the Angel catcher who recalled playing in American Legion tournaments at the sports city, and who said Clemente's stature in his homeland stems as much from his humanity off the field as his accomplishments on it.

"As player, person and family man, he was exemplary," said Sandy Alomar, the former Angel infielder who is a coach with the Colorado Rockies and whose sons, Roberto and Sandy Jr., still work out occasionally at sports city during the off-season. Their early baseball hopes were those of every Puerto Rican youngster.

"It's like this," the senior Alomar said. "Everybody who dreams of putting on a uniform in Puerto Rico dreams of being Roberto Clemente."

They have come out of Puerto Rico by the dozens, major league stars such as the Alomar brothers, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Carlos Beltran, Edgar Martinez, Jose Cruz, Carlos Delgado, Ruben Sierra, Carlos Baerga and many others, but none has been Clemente.

As if the Hall of Fame is such an easy reach, as if it would be easy to duplicate his 18 years as the Pittsburgh Pirates' right fielder, winning 12 Gold Gloves and four batting titles and ensuring his Cooperstown plaque by collecting his 3,000th hit off Jon Matlack of the New York Mets in his final at-bat of the 1972 season, his final at-bat, period.

Vera Clemente still has the ball among a museum of memorabilia at the house on Calle Roberto Clemente, where the sloping front lawn features a bat, ball and the No. 21 in a white rock formation. The house is only a short drive from the sports city that Clemente often talked about and drew plans for but had little time to develop, what with three young sons who each shared the name Roberto, a short off-season and the premonition, Vera Clemente said in reflection, that if he didn't get his 3,000th hit that season he might not get it "because he always insisted he would die young."

At 62, almost 40 years since they were married and 31 since he died, Vera Clemente's eyes still tear as she copes with the reality of that premonition, but it is a sadness tempered by a life dedicated to fulfilling his dreams, to raising their sons -- Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto and Enrique Roberto -- to sustaining his memory in so many ways and to fielding the letters and tributes that continue to arrive almost daily.

She smiled and said it was only recently that she learned that Liberia -- "Liberia?" she repeated quizzically -- has a coin in Clemente's honor, but then it's difficult keeping up without an atlas.

There's a ballpark in his name in Mannheim, Germany, and an award that honors the Japanese ballplayer who contributes to community service, just as the Roberto Clemente Award presented at the World Series similarly honors a major league player. There are Roberto Clemente scholarships presented through Major League Baseball and the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, Inc., a coliseum that was renamed for him here and a commemorative U.S. stamp that was accompanied by a Clemente quote at the time of the unveiling that said, "Accomplishment is something you cannot buy. If you have a chance to do something for somebody, and do not make the most of it, you are wasting your time on earth."

"Roberto died trying to help people, and he did that often," Vera Clemente said. "We would go on vacation and he would insist on getting away from the tourist areas so that he could talk to the common people about their hopes and dreams.

"I know he was a wonderful player, but when people name a park or school after him, it's to honor the humanitarian, and to provide an incentive for young people. He would often say to me, 'When I retire, I want to be with kids, teaching them how to play baseball, giving them the chance to play all sports.' He wanted a place that would be all things to all people.

"Friends say to me now, 'Vera, you've done so much. It's time to relax, to travel, to write your book.' I know that I've sacrificed family, sacrificed myself, but I've dedicated myself to this project, this dream of Roberto's, this sports city, and I won't ever walk away from it. It's my fourth son."

Thousands have played on the fields of Ciudad Deportiva, attended classes in drug prevention and other societal issues, applauded dances and other community events. It has been the service facility her husband intended, Vera Clemente said, but it is much as it was when the government first donated a 300-acre package that borders and spans landfill and wetlands and is tied up in so many restrictions and regulations that new construction has been impossible.

"We are a patient waiting for a transplant," said Luis Roberto, at 36 the middle of the three sons and the one most active in hoping to help his mother get some of the restrictions lifted, having returned to Puerto Rico from Pittsburgh, where he ran the Clementes' licensing business.

"I have other options in life," he said, "but I can't depend on my [three] young sons to recognize and fulfill what my responsibilities here are, the commitments I have to my dad's memory.

"I've been low-key about this for a long time, but it's time to speak up. My dad's name is known everywhere, but it's shameful and embarrassing he hasn't received the support he should here, in his own country."

Clemente didn't specifically mean financial support. The government has given the sports city an annual grant of $784,000 for the last 10 years. A local bank has provided a yearly bridge loan to help the Clementes fund their $1.3-million budget and sustain summer programs until they receive the government grant each fall.

Now, however, the bank has closed that line of credit, and many of the summer programs have been dropped.

The Clementes say it should never have come to this. They have a $100-million master plan that would include a golf course, hotel and baseball stadium that they insist could be built in stages with private funding and ultimately would be self-sufficient, meaning there would be no need for government subsidy. However, they need the government to lift many of the building and other restrictions. Both Vera and Luis Roberto Clemente expressed optimism that they now have the ear of the legislature.

"My mom and I, along with my brothers, take a lot of satisfaction from the happiness we've been able to provide here, but it's also been frustrating because there's so much more we could be doing," Luis Roberto said. "I think the legislature is listening now and understands how it can benefit the government to lift the restrictions and allow us to proceed with the master plan. Right now, we're in something of a recess, but I think it can work to our advantage."

The Clementes hope for legislative action by late summer or early fall. Meantime, the Roberto Clemente Foundation is undergoing an administrative overhaul that will include the hiring of an experienced executive director to ease the pressure on Vera Clemente, and is being done under the auspices of a board that includes former National League president Leonard Coleman, Hall of Fame President Dale Petrosky, Pirate owner Kevin McClatchy, Jackie Robinson's daughter, Sharon, and Pittsburgh-based lawyer Chuck Barry.

"Vera's heart is 100% in the right place," Coleman said. "It always has been and always will be. The sports city has been a wonderful outlet for thousands of underprivileged kids, many of whom have signed pro contracts or received college scholarships out of the facility.

"They're simply at a point now where they want to go to another level and need to go to another level and they need someone with real administrative skills to help take them there."

And if the government doesn't lift the restrictions?

Well, Vera Clemente said, the sports city will continue trying to do what it has been doing, what her husband hoped it would. The dream just won't be as big.

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