Peter Handrinos is a frequent
contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York
Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for
The cold, hard fact says that
Roberto Clemente died on the evening of December
31st, 1972. Reality says his presence lives
Pittsburgh baseball fans remember the
12-time All Star. In playing from 1955 to 1972, Clemente set the all-time
standard for right field defense while hitting well enough to win four batting
titles and amass 1,305 career RBI’s and exactly 3,000 hits. That memory is,
literally, a part of the franchise’s foundation - today’s fans arrive to the
Pirates’ home games by crossing Roberto Clemente Bridge and passing his larger-than-life
Latin American ball players, also,
carry on Clemente’s influence. The majority of Latinos cite him as a key
inspiration in their careers, many of them making a comparison to Jackie Robinson’s role as both a brilliant player and outspoken advocate for equal
opportunity. It’s one reason why foreign-born players like Roberto Alomar and
Carlos Delgado have honored the Hall of Famer by donning uniform number 21
through the years.
The man’s living legacy has also
been carried on through his humanitarian work. Clemente actually died in an
effort to supply earthquake victims in
Nicaragua, and his sense of civic duty is
today embodied in the annual given to the Major Leagues’ most outstanding
humanitarians. To this day, supporters continue to fund and operate several of
charitable efforts in his native Puerto
most notable being a ‘Sports City’ for disadvantaged kids.
Unmatched performance, social
impact, and civic giving have all kept Roberto Clemente’s influences alive, and
so have his children.
Roberto Clemente, Jr. has been an
heir to all facets of his late father’s life. After injuries cut off his own
playing career in the Minor Leagues, he became a well-known Spanish-language
broadcaster and commentator, most prominently among Latinos for his work on
York’s WFAN radio. The younger
Clemente, now 41, has also carried on the family’s charitable giving through
programs dedicated to inner-city Pittsburgh teens and underprivileged Puerto
Recently, he discussed Roberto
Sr.’s living legacy:
Do you remember a time when
baseball wasn’t in your life?
No. We had a ‘baseball family’ in
the fullest sense. We have family movies of me, in diapers, swinging at a little
plastic ball with a little plastic bat. From my earliest memories, all I can
remember was my parents, who were both wonderful, and a house full of baseball
people, from players to coaches and managers and fans. I watched the game,
thought about the game, and played the game constantly.
The one time that baseball wasn’t
in my life was when I got hurt down in the Minors. I didn’t want to go to the
ball park for a while, just because I missed it so much and, physically, I
couldn’t be a teammate. Apart from that, I’ve always been around the
While you were growing up, were
you worried about following in your father’s footsteps as a professional player?
I mean, it’s a hard enough game without the inevitable
Well, as I said, baseball was such
a part of my life, I didn’t really think about going any other way. My mother
didn’t raise me to think of myself as a celebrity, or anyone special, just
because my father could play baseball.
Maybe, looking back, I should have
realized that there would be a lot of expectations. I really didn’t realize
that, understandably, people would see ‘Roberto Clemente, Jr.’ in the lineup and
wait for incredible things. The media reaction, especially, was a surprise, to
be honest, and it made it a little hard to have fun, at least at first.
As a player and, later, a
broadcaster, what was the interpersonal reaction? When people hear the name
‘Roberto Clemente’, how did they relate to you?
There are a lot of very, very
powerful emotions. We have a special connection to Puerto
the city of Pittsburgh, obviously, but there are always
powerful emotions for all people, across the board. Very often, people hug me
and start crying, telling me how what a great ball player and a great man my
father was. How much he meant to them. That he was a hero, in their minds. It’s
happened I don’t know how many times, but it still gets me choked up, to be
It’s been a long time since his
last game, but for so many, it doesn’t seem long ago at
It’s never stopped. Today, more
than 30 years after his death, they’re still naming ball parks and leagues after
him. Just recently, in Germany, they opened a new Roberto
Clemente Stadium. In Liberia, Africa, there’s a Clemente image on the
currency. It goes so far beyond baseball.
Some times, I have to say to
myself, ‘How do they know the name?’. I’ve run into many players or fans who
weren’t even alive when Dad played his last game in ’72, but they ‘know’ him
because of the stories and the memories. Their older brothers and fathers had a
poster or a baseball card, a book, and they passed it on.
How would you describe, in
particular, your father’s legacy among Latino ball players and
I’m very, very proud of his memory
among Latinos. I can’t tell you how many ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ and ‘grandmas’ we
have, in friends that became like family.
Many times, they talk about the
way my father perfected his game, and they talk about the way he carried himself
as a man, on and off the field. They talk about him as an ambassador for, not
only Latinos, for all minorities, especially foreign-born minorities.
I suppose one of the most lasting,
important memories was in your late father’s philanthropy. I had the honor of
talking to a past Clemente Award winner, Jamie Moyer, just recently. Can you
talk about that?
Charity and giving to others was
such a big part of my father’s life and, to this day, his memory.
The Awards are simply a way of
recognizing ball players’ impact as human beings, and I’ve been told that, for
the winners, they’ve meant more than any other individual award, for that
reason. I remember the great Rod Carew saying, ‘I don’t care about the batting
titles. This [Clemente Award] means more to me than anything’. That gives me
Very often, Roberto Clemente is
compared to Jackie Robinson in all the things you mentioned - the Hall of Fame
career on the field, the pioneering role and charitable impact off the field.
How would you describe their connection?
Well, obviously, anyone who knows
the first thing about baseball knows what Jackie meant to the game. He had
incredible courage and ability. You can never take away the fact that he was the
first minority player, and opened the door to all those who came afterwards,
including Roberto Clemente, Sr.
I would say the biggest difference
was - when dad came up in ’55, he had to deal with a new language and culture,
as well as racism. I’m proud of how often he spoke out for justice and
opportunity, even when he was risking his own career as a player. That meant a
lot to, particularly, Latino players who were dealing with language and cultural
differences. I’m proud that he went and reached out to the poorest communities
in many countries, including, in the last years of his life,
Are you happy with Latino players’
role in the game today?
Well, it’s wonderful that so many
great ball players come from around the country and the world. Everywhere you
look, Latinos, as well as whites and African-Americans and Asians, are among the
league leaders. Latinos have the freedom to come up, to express themselves, and,
obviously, make good money playing a game they love.
At the same time, things still
aren’t perfect. I still think that there’s room for more understanding with the
language, for instance. I’d like to see a time when more American reporters
learn how to speak Spanish, and more Spanish-speaking players learn good
English. That’s key. That can lead to even more marketing opportunities and
diversity. That can lead to more leadership opportunities among managers and the
Do you feel that there’s still a
resistance to the players in terms of being showboats or me-first guys, for
I’d love to say that all the
negative stereotypes are gone, but that’s not always the reality. There’s still
an image, among some, that, ‘Oh, Latinos may have great talent, but they don’t
work to get better’. I think of that broadcaster in, I think, the Bay Area, who
talked about ‘brain-dead hitters’ from the Caribbean. You hear about this-or-that guy
being lazy or hot-tempered or moody or whatever.
That’s wrong, but it’s out there.
We should be open-minded. Some Latino players are bad guys and some are good
guys. They should be judged on their own character, just like everybody else.
Do you see a distinct ‘Latino’ way
to play the game?
No. When some people say, ‘You
can’t walk off the island’ or whatever, I think that’s kind of off-base.
Baseball’s baseball. Everybody wants to win and everybody has to play by the
If anything’s different among the
Latinos, it might be in personal style. Some players tend to wear their hearts
on their sleeve, or they’re more flamboyant. There’s something to that. I don’t
see how that’s a negative, however. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can be
passionate and still play great baseball.
Do you feel that Spanish-speaking
players tend to hang out and support each other, despite whatever other
differences they might have in their personal background or
Well, that’s a funny thing.
Latinos can come from many different countries. Growing up in
be very different than growing up in Mexico or
I do think that Latino players
tend to stick together, though, because they have a common challenge in the
language and adjustment to a new country. Plenty of times, I’ve seen them
sharing a meal and conversations after the game, just talking about what it’s
like to play in the big leagues and ‘en los Estados Unidos’. That’s beautiful.
Baseball should bring us all together.
But you know controversy has been
kicked up by, for example, ‘The All-Latino Team’ selections. They didn’t include
guys like Ted Williams and Reggie Jackson, both of whom had a partial Latino
heritage. How did you feel about that?
It’s got to be up to the player.
I’ll give you an example - ARod. He played for the
USA [during the World Baseball
Classic], not the Dominican
Republic, where he grew up for some years.
People talked about that.
Me, I can’t knock a guy. Only he
knows about his own upbringing, his family and friends, and culture. Only he can
say what’s right for him. It’s not for me, or anyone else to define
Or Ted Williams and Reggie
Or Ted Williams and Reggie
Jackson, sure. That’s up to them. Everyone should take pride in their identity,
whatever it is.
York, I’m sure you’ve heard of the
‘Los Mets’ reputation-
Sure. From [Mets general manager]
Right. It’s been controversial in
some quarters, only for the thought that too much of a focus on foreign-born
players can lead to cliquish-ness. Do you think that was a realistic danger for
the Mets or any other ball club?
Oh, I believe Omar’s one of the
smartest operators in baseball. I love the guy. I think he knows what he’s
doing. Most of his new players happened to be Latinos, but I know that he was
never thinking, ‘I’ve got to assemble a Latino team’. I can say this about my
friend - he cares about winning. That’s the priority. He’s looking to fit the
players together on a winning team, first and foremost. Nationality or whatever
comes after the fact.
You mentioned cliques, too, and
you know what? People tend to hang out with people that know their own language
and music and background. All people. That can be true for salsa like it can be
for rock ‘n roll. I think the real issue for a Major League clubhouse is, again,
about winning. At the end of the day, are the players focused on winning as a
team on the field? I can only talk about the clubhouses I know, and I have
confidence that all the Mets are playing for a championship
In a Dominican-American restaurant
like Nueva Caridad in New
York, do you find more fans rooting
for the Yankees and Mets, or for individual Dominican-American players
regardless of team affiliation?
Well, I’m not sure how to answer
your question. Have you ever been to Nuevo Caridad?
Just once. And not for a couple
I’d urge you to visit and find out
for yourself. In what I’ve seen, there’s a love for the game of baseball, number
one. After that, different people love different teams and different players.
Some people are Yankees, some are Mets. Some are going to root for Derek Jeter
over A-Rod, even though A-Rod is Dominican-American. And vice versa. And all
Focusing on this or that
generalization, I’m not sure it’s a good idea. I’d put it down to a love of
baseball, as I said. That, and the food, too (chuckles). They’ve got some great
home-cooked meals over there, I’ll tell you.
After a lifetime in baseball, are
you more of a fan, less of a fan, or about the same?
I’m more of a fan. As I mentioned,
not everything’s perfect, and I don’t like things like the steroids controversy,
but baseball’s in great shape. Events like the World Baseball Classic are
bringing the game forward, including more and more talented players and
interested fans. It’s a very positive time.
The complete Table of Contents for
the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.