A visit with Roberto Clemente Jr.: His Hall of Fame father was a hero to me, too

Published Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Roberto Clemente Jr. (second from left) visits the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame with ASHOF executive director Scott Myers (left), ASHOF facility director Bill Miller (right) and AL.com sports columnist Kevin Scarbinsky on Sept. 12, 2014, in Birmingham, Alabama. (Lauren Cooper/Birmingham Business Alliance)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - Turns out Michael Jordan and I have something in common besides trouble with the curve. As kids, we both wanted to be Roberto Clemente when we grew up.

And we both shared that childhood dream with Roberto Clemente Jr.

The oldest son and namesake of one of the greatest players in baseball history still hears that kind of thing all the time, almost 42 years after the plane crash that took his father's life at age 38.

"The way people remember him, it's not about the baseball side," Clemente Jr. said. "It's about the humanitarian side. That is very special to me."

He heard it on both sides Friday. On his first trip to Alabama, before his speech to Birmingham's Hispanic Business Council, Clemente toured the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. I tagged along.

Clemente's an entrepreneur, a broadcaster and a world traveler, his own baseball career cut short by knee and back injuries. He's been to the private vault at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where his dad is enshrined and he's taken a swing with one of Babe Ruth's bats, but he seemed genuinely impressed by the state treasure that is the ASHOF.

As executive director Scott Myers guided us from exhibit to exhibit, from Hank Aaron to Willie Mays, Clemente said more than once, "I'm blown away."

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Roberto Clemente tips his hat to the crowd after doubling for his 3,000th career hit Sept. 30, 1972, in Pittsburgh, Pa. (AP photo)

Joy, flash, fury and fire

Blown away. That was my reaction, as a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, to his dad. You think Yasiel Puig has skills? You should've seen Roberto Clemente, all 5-feet-11 and 175 pounds of him, slash a double in the gap and hustle it into a triple, or grab a ball in the right-field corner and cut down a runner with a laser. No one in that era played the game with more joy, flash, fury and fire.

I grew up on the wrong side of the state to see him in person, but that misfortune didn't keep me from idolizing him the way kids have always done with major leaguers, only more so. He and I shared a birthday. Aug. 18. That connection meant something to a Little Leaguer across the state who batted right and threw right, too.

Clemente's baseball resume is still staggering: Four National League batting titles, 12 straight Gold Gloves, 3,000 career hits and MVP awards in the National League and the World Series. But he was a hero in Pennsylvania and his native Puerto Rico for so much more.

"He was a person that really cared about people," his son said. "People would see him and scream his name, he would stop the car, get out of the car, shake their hand and talk to them. He would see kids playing on a playground. He would get out of the car and talk to the kids.

"I really cherished who he was as a person."

Roberto Jr. still remembers the time his dad saved his life.

"He loved convertibles. He would get in the car and drive fast. He was always in a hurry to get somewhere."

On one of those drives with his oldest son, who was 4 or 5, Roberto Jr. "decided to get up on the seat and jump." In the convertible. At top speed. With the top down.

"I remember the force of the wind," Clemente Jr. said. "He reached back and grabbed me and pulled me down to the seat. The next day the car was gone. No more convertibles."

A heroic act and tragic death

It was his dad's unselfish need to help other people that took his life. A massive earthquake had devastated Nicaragua around Christmas 1972, and Clemente threw himself into gathering relief supplies for the victims. On New Year's Eve, he decided to travel on one of the supply planes out of San Juan.

The family was preparing for a New Year's Eve party when Roberto Jr. found his dad at the dining room table. The 7-year-old didn't want his dad to go. He'd had a premonition.

"When I got to him to say 'good morning,' it was not 'good morning.' It was just a message: 'Don't get on that plane. That plane's gonna crash.' He told me, 'I'll see you when I get back.' I said, 'No, that plane's gonna crash.' And that was the last time I saw him."

The plane had barely taken off when it dived into the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone on board died. The tragic news reached Roberto Jr. when the phone rang and his mom screamed.

"No one else had to tell me anything," he said. "I knew."

Four decades later, people know Roberto Clemente for how he lived, how he played and how he died. Major league baseball still honors a player each year for his work on and off the field with the Roberto Clemente Award. Everywhere Roberto Clemente Jr. goes, he hears from people whose lives his father touched.

"It means more now to me than when I was growing up," he said. "I've consoled so many people, thousands of people, that when they hear the name, it's just a reaction, they start crying. It's just automatic. You can just see it happening right in front of your eyes."

I didn't cry, not Friday, almost 42 years after one of the saddest baseball days ever. I saw too much joy and pride in Roberto Clemente Jr.'s eyes.