NEW YORK – For the great players who saw him play, Roberto Clemente was an amazing talent and unmistakable strength on the field who had a powerful influence on young footballers.
His selfless humanism also made a lasting impression.
Major League Baseball celebrated its 21st annual Roberto Clemente Thursday, with festivities centered in New York, where the former Hall of Fame player was hosted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Clemente died in a plane crash at the age of 38 while trying to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve 1972. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of that tragedy, more than a dozen winners of the Roberto Clemente Baseball Prize for Charity and Play. The franchise joined members of the Clemente family at Citi Field for a pre-game party.
Like Clemente and a proud Puerto Rican national, Carlos Delgado, former Mets player and 2006 winner, said: “The most important trophy I have in my house. Because it’s not just a trophy.”
Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Jim Thome were among the winners of the Clemente Award presented on the field before the highlights of the 15-time All-Star’s life and career were shown on the large video board in Central Square.
Players and coaches from both teams — all wearing the Clemente No. 21, as did some others around the majors — lined the baselines. Puerto Rican musician Jose Feliciano performed Puerto Rico’s national anthem and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Clemente’s 4-year-old grandson threw first pitch in a RC III Pirates jersey.
“It’s a very special energy today,” said Luis Clemente, Roberto’s son. ‘Energy is completely different this year.’
Clemente, a cherished icon in baseball-loving Puerto Rico, became the first player from the Caribbean and Latin America to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.
The strong-armed right-hander won 12 Golden Gloves, four batting titles, and the 1966 National League Player of the Year award. He helped lead the Buccaneers to a pair of championships in 18 brilliant seasons and was the MVP of the 1971 World Championship.
“I came in the league in ’73. I knew who Roberto Clemente was and would be a proper player, so I watched the way he charges the ball, catches it, sends people off. I wish (we) were able to play so we could test each other’s arms. But he was a great player. And an incredible human being,” Winfield said.
“Before I go, man, one of the things I wanted to do was win this Roberto Clemente award, because it would recognize some of the work that’s been done throughout my career,” he added. “I’ve missed him for a year. But his legacy lives on, and we are all part of that.”
Clemente took hit number 3000 on his last hit, a double hit by John Matlack of the Mets on September 30, 1972.
“You look back through history and some of the things he’s done and what it means,” said Mets manager Buck Showalter. “It’s a wonderful thing that baseball does.”
“I think of him picking up the ball on the right line and spinning and throwing,” Showalter added, noting that he threw Roberto Clemente’s typical high school racket. “I think about his reckless abandon and how he was a high runner. Can you imagine what it was like trying to tag him in a second, and back, when you could actually slide in with spikes and stay hooked to the bag because it wasn’t hard, plastic, and smooth?”
There has been a push in recent years for MLB to retire Clemente #21 of all teams, the way the sport did in 1997 honoring Dodgers major Jackie Robinson for breaking the baseball color barrier 50 years ago.
“It’s a situation where I think he’s gaining more momentum,” said Pirates coach Derek Shelton. “I think today is one of the best days of the year.”