It was a moment that astonished even the great Frank Robinson. As the Baltimore Orioles faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1971 World Series, Robinson came to bat with Merv Rettenmund as the runner on third base.
Robinson, as he customarily did in the clutch, lifted a long fly ball down the right field line. At first, it appeared that the ball might get out of the park. But as the right fielder camped under it, Orioles´ fans felt certain it would at least bring Rettenmund home on a sacrifice fly.
And with any other right fielder in baseball, that might have been the case. But the man waiting for the ball to drop into his glove was not just any ordinary outfielder. It was the incomparable Roberto Clemente.
Clemente caught the ball, and rifled an unforgettable throw toward catcher Manny Sanguillen. The ball came to Sanguillen on a line, a frozen rope that reached the catcher so quickly, that Rettenmund barely had time to blink, let alone make a dash for home plate.
“Roberto Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.” broadcaster Vin Scully would say, according to Baseball Almanac. And never had a superlative been more appropriate.
Clemente was a humble, yet confident man. That was never more evident than it was during his home run trot. His body swaggered as he rounded the bases. Not as if he was absorbed in himself, but more like a preacher that was so excited by his blessings that his enthusiasm seemed to leak out of his body, causing it to rock to and fro.
But for all of his on- field greatness, his commitment to give back is what distinguished him. He didn´t look at the commitment as a reason to be praised, but rather as a reason to serve. ”Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth,¨ he said, also according to Baseball Almanac.
So it was no surprise on December 31, 1972, when Clemente boarded a cargo plane loaded with supplies to help the victims of an earthquake in Managua. Clemente had insisted on taking the flight because he was concerned that the supplies may not reach the people who needed them. He wanted to make sure the supplies would not be intercepted by unscrupulous pirates who would then sell them for profit.
“Roberto Clemente played the game of baseball with great passion, Sanguillen explained, also according to Baseball Almanac. ¨That passion could only be matched by his unrelenting commitment to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate and those in need…¨
According to reports, Clemente boarded the plane over the objections of his wife, Vera. She insisted that the plane was overloaded. She wanted him to delay the flight. But Clemente decided to continue.
Clemente had spear- headed the mission. He was vigorously involved in the days leading up to to the flight. “He did not just lend his name to the fund-raising activities the way some famous personalities do,” said Luis Vigoraux, a television producer who had supported the project, according to The New York Times. “He took over the entire thing, arranging for collection points, publicity and the transportation to Nicaragua.”
The plane, a four-engined DC-7, left San Juan Airport. But shortly after taking off, it descended into the nearby rough seas. The coast guard searched furiously, finally finding the wreckage the following morning.
The love for a man who had made his extraordinary athletic talent secondary to helping others, quickly rang out around the world. Beyond his 3,000 hits, and his .317 lifetime batting average, and his four National League batting titles, and his 15 all-star selections, and his National League and World Series MVP awards, and his 12 Gold Gloves, beyond all of that, was a man who knew that helping those in need was much more important than any statistics or awards.
“Since 1971, Major League Baseball has annually presented an award that recognizes the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team,¨ Commissioner Bud Selig explained in 2002, also according to Baseball Almanac. ¨In 1972 the award, formerly known as the Commissioner’s Award, was renamed to honor Roberto Clemente who tragically died in a plane crash while delivering much needed supplies to earthquake-stricken citizens of Nicaragua. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the award.”
And the love, admiration and respect for Roberto Clemente has never stopped growing. Undoubtedly, his wife Vera knew better than anyone how he impacted the lives of so many.
“I still see him sometimes when I am alone, she said. ¨People remember him as a ballplayer, but he was so much more. He was a father, a husband, a wonderful man.”