For some of you who read this entry, you’ve never heard of Roberto Clemente.
Roberto played major league baseball when I was in my teens with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Roberto was born in Puerto Rico. He was one of the best hitters to grace the game, a true giant of the sport.
In a career that spanned seventeen years, Clemente consistently hit over .300. His life time batting average was an amazing .317, one of the highest in baseball.
He also had one of the strongest throwing arms in history. I watched him nail a runner crossing home plate with a straight throw in the air from the right field corner. For his outfield expertise Roberto won twelve consecutive Golden Glove Awards.
In 1973 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Clemente was also known as the guy with the back problems who always complained.
So this is where my story begins.
It was Christmas 1972. I was a freshman at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. My folks lived in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean Sea.
I had flown from Nashville to Miami and spent several days with my then living grandparents. Now, I was heading to St. Croix for the holidays via Puerto Rico.
In those days there were no terrorists and no TSA.
As my grandparents walked me to the Eastern Airlines gate, I was greeted by a bunch of activity. Countless reporters, with camera bulbs flashing preyed upon someone. “Roberto” this and “Roberto” that was all I could hear in the uproar of shouting.
I discovered that the immortal Roberto Clemente was on my flight. Like me, he was heading out to Puerto Rico for Christmas.
The flight was packed.
Someway, somehow, they had no space for me in economy. The Eastern Airlines agent asked if I’d mind being bumped up to first class. Who would mind? LOL!
I took my place next to the window, the seat to my right empty.
One of the last passengers to get on was Roberto Clemente. The interviews at the gate had prolonged his entry into the airplane. I could not believe it when he sat next to me.
“Hello, I am Roberto Clemente” he extended his hand out and shook mine.
“Yes, I know”, I muttered weakly, and shook his.
When the flight took off we began to talk. I was not a Christian. As a matter of fact in that year of 1972, I had begun a ten-year journey with pot and hash which caused me to hit rock bottom and find Jesus Christ.
Shortly after takeoff a reporter came up to Clemente; “Roberto, what about your contract for next year?” Clemente brushed him off. He did not want to talk baseball.
Looking back, I know that God spoke to me, though I did not recognize Him.
I thought that it was me, but no, it was Him.
“Everybody is always talking to Clemente about baseball. I am not going to talk to him about it. Let me ask him questions about his family,” I thought.
So I asked Roberto about his family and what he was going to do for Christmas.
This initiated an almost three hour nonstop conversation all the way to San Juan.
From brown shopping bags Clemente pulled gift after gift for family and friends. He proudly opened the boxes and displayed them. I will never forget the laminated spikes for rooster fights. I think that the man was into cock fighting, very popular in Puerto Rico.
With excitement Clemente unveiled what he purchased for his wife and kids.
He then went to talk about his continual challenges with his back and the lady who tended to it during the season.
We never once talked baseball.
I remember Roberto Clemente as one of the nicest persons ever.
When our flight landed, I was told that my connecting flight to St. Croix had been sold out and I could not leave until the following day. Roberto was a representative for Eastern Airlines. He got me a free room at the Isla Verde Airport Hotel.
In retrospect, my encounter with Roberto Clemente was the gospel of Jesus Christ. His gospel is the gospel of love. It’s the gospel of friendship. It’s the gospel of the listening ear and genuine interest for neighbor. It’s the gospel of putting the other first and yourself last.
The incredible longing that this colossal of baseball had to share his family’s treasures, makes me think that he did not have many to share them with.
Roberto Clemente for most was the Hall of Famer, the batting champion, the Golden Glover par excellence. But for few, I think, he was Roberto Clemente, the man, the loving husband, and proud father.
The world is ready for Jesus. Not the churchy Jesus. Not the Jesus who judges or condemns, for that is not Jesus. People are looking for authenticity, the real person, and the true friend.
What I thought was a huge schism between conservatives and liberals is really more a figment of my imagination. People are the same everywhere, whether liberal or conservative. Everybody speaks the language of love, of wanting to be accepted and listened to. Most political schisms melt into nothing when I love people like Jesus loves them.
Needless to say, I can’t ask Roberto Clemente how his wife and kids liked their gifts. One week after meeting him Roberto died in an airplane crash. Not just as a giant in baseball but in life, he was flying supplies to victims of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua. His plane went down off Puerto Rico.
As a kid of eighteen I was devastated, traumatized and stunned by the news.
Today, I thank the God whom I did not know, for the privilege of meeting Roberto Clemente. I think that God unknowingly used me as one of the last people apart from family to talk with Roberto Clemente, as the man, and not the baseball player, before his sudden departure from us. I think that all along this is what Roberto Clemente really wanted.
Roberto Clemente Base Ball Statistics
Life Time Batting Average: .317 (One of the best averages in baseball)
Batted a .414 batting average in the 1971 World Series
Home runs: 240
Runs batted in: 1,305
Teams: Pittsburgh Pirates (1955–1972)
Played In 15 All-Star Games (1960, 1960², 1961, 1961², 1962, 1962², 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972)
Played in World Series champion (1960, 1971)
Won 12 Consecutive Gold Glove Award (1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, and 1972) for excellence as an outfielder.
Holds 4 NL batting titles (1961, 1964, 1965, 1967)
NL Most Valuable Player (1966)
World Series MVP (1971)
Babe Ruth Award (1971)
Was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973