Clemente's towering legacy alive and well in Pittsburgh

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

July 12, 2006|By MIKE BERARDINO | MIKE BERARDINO,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

PITTSBURGH — On a sun-splashed Sunday afternoon, thousands of baseball fans make their way toward PNC Park by walking over the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Once they cross the mustard-yellow structure, many of them pause at a hulking statue of Clemente before taking the center-field entrance into the sandstone stadium for the All-Star Futures Game.

Some pose for pictures. Others spend a few moments in silent reflection.

Then there are the two frizzy-haired twin boys, age 12 or so, grinning wildly behind thick glasses. They grab onto the statue's massive right hand and pull themselves off the ground.

Security guards stand nearby but no one says a word. Maybe that's because the boys wear matching Pirates T-shirts bearing Clemente's No. 21.

Most poignant are the parents who pull their young children close and softly try to explain just who this bronze batter was.

PNC's right-field fence? It stands precisely 21 feet high, and everyone knows why.

Nearly 34 years after Clemente's death in a New Year's Eve plane crash, the legacy of the Hall of Fame right fielder still towers over this city and its downtrodden baseball franchise.

In some ways, considering the huge stamp Latin American players have placed on the game since Clemente's death at age 38, the same could be said of the sport itself. Each October, baseball honors its most community-minded participant with the Roberto Clemente Award.

A handful of great players have worn the black and gold of the Pirates since Clemente's death. The late Willie Stargell has a statue of his own outside PNC. Dave Parker and Barry Bonds got their starts here.

However, none of them can match Clemente's popularity and regal spirit in western Pennsylvania.

There is no small irony in that status, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss notes. Maraniss has been alternately amazed and amused as he has been promoting his fascinating new book, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero.

"If you believed everybody who said they were really at the Ice Bowl there would have been 20 million people," Maraniss says from his Wisconsin home. "It's similar in Pittsburgh. Everybody says they loved Clemente. Well, they didn't all love him when he was alive. He had his difficulties there."

It's easy to forget considering the Puerto Rican superstar's credentials. How hard could it have been for Clemente while he was banging out 3,000 hits, making the All-Star team 12 times and winning two World Series, four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves and the 1966 Most Valuable Player?

"The city back then was a quintessential blue-collar, white, ethnic steel town," Maraniss says. "Back then, every possible negative stereotype was applied to Latinos."

Language was a huge barrier for Clemente, starting with his arrival in 1955. Local sports writers regularly quoted him phonetically, rendering him a Chico Escuela-type caricature.

There were small scuffles with rival fans. There was a short-lived trade demand in 1965. And there was the steady portrayal of Clemente as a showboating hypochondriac, tags he resented greatly.

"He had reasons to be moody," Maraniss says. "He was an outspoken black Puerto Rican at a time when for athletes that was unusual. He really in that way was ahead of his time."

In death, all was forgiven, and Clemente rose to a saintly stature. Sadly, it took his going down on a rickety plane while taking supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua for many Pittsburghers to realize what sort of man had been in their midst.

And what if Clemente had never boarded that overloaded plane? What if he were here this week and able, at age 71, to step onto the field and wave to the children and grandchildren of the people who once booed him in his prime?

"It would be different," Maraniss says. "Clemente is not just remembered as a ballplayer but as a sort of mythological figure because of the way he died."

This was a man who greatly admired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and who spent considerable energy getting his 304-acre sports academy up and running in Puerto Rico.

"Even in the last years of his life, he was reaching out beyond baseball to politics, sociology and the world beyond sports," Maraniss says. "I think he would have grown into something more than just a sports figure."

And that might be the most tragic part of all.

Mike Berardino writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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