Baseball Men - The Legacy

Our exclusive "Baseball Men" interview series continues with Roberto Clemente, Jr., a broadcaster for WFAN New York's ‘Latin Beat'

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 Die-Hard Fans'.

 

 

The cold, hard fact says that Roberto Clemente died on the evening of December 31st, 1972. Reality says his presence lives on.

 

Certainly, 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 statue.

 

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 Rico, the 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 New 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 Ricans.

 

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 game.

 

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 comparisons.

 

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 Rico and 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 honest.

 

It's been a long time since his last game, but for so many, it doesn't seem long ago at all.

 

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 fans?

 

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 goosebumps.

 

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, Nicaragua.

 

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 front office.

 

Do you feel that there's still a resistance to the players in terms of being showboats or me-first guys, for instance?

 

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 same rules.

 

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 nationality?

 

Well, that's a funny thing. Latinos can come from many different countries. Growing up in Puerto Rico can be very different than growing up in Mexico or Venezuela, say.

 

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 A-Rod…

 

Or Ted Williams and Reggie Jackson.

 

Or Ted Williams and Reggie Jackson, sure. That's up to them. Everyone should take pride in their identity, whatever it is.

 

Living in New York, I'm sure you've heard of the ‘Los Mets' reputation-

 

Sure. From [Mets general manager] Omar Minaya.

 

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 ring.

 

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 years now.

 

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 teams.

 

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.

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