Perhaps you watched the 2008 All-Star Game last week, or at least the first six or seven hours of it. And if you did, then maybe also heard Fox Sports analyst Tim McCarver call Ichiro Suzuki the best right fielder he’s seen since Roberto Clemente.
Baseball fans love to argue about who was the best player ever. I never saw Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth play, of course, but I did see Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron all play in their prime. Many baseball fans would say one of them was the best ever. Willie Mays was so talented he had an undeniable presence on the field that we haven’t seen the likes of since. Mickey Mantle was so good in so many ways that he made you wonder what he might have been capable of if he had played the game sober and without being hurt. Hammerin’ Hank brought a solid work ethic and quiet dignity to the game that, sadly, is all but lost in baseball today.
But if you ask me who my all time favorite baseball player is, I don’t have to think twice about it. In his 18-year major league career, Roberto Clemente was an All-Star 12 times, led the National League in batting four times and earned a lifetime .317 batting average while having to face the likes of Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax. He won 11 Gold Gloves, and was generally recognized as having the best outfield throwing arm of his generation. He was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1966, led his team to one World Series win over the then Casey Stengel-managed Yankees led by Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford. And he was the World Series MVP in 1971 when he led his Pittsburgh Pirates to an upset win over the mighty Baltimore Orioles, a team featuring a pretty good right fielder named Frank Robinson, a pretty good third baseman named Brooks Robinson and four 20-game winners on the mound.
He came up to the big leagues at a time when the hotels and restaurants at training camps in Florida were still segregated, and faced a double barrier of prejudice and discrimination as both a black man and a Latino. He was an intensely proud man who refused to meekly accept segregation or double standards, and his outspoken anger and frustration at the injustice of it all often led to him being noted as “difficult” and a touchy interview. He got his 3,000th hit in the last game he played at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh before heading home to Puerto Rico for the winter.
But his exploits on the baseball field, as remarkable and impressive as they were, do not really tell the story of the man. On New Year’s Eve, when he could have been home celebrating with his friends and family, Roberto Clemente boarded a Lockheed DC-7 airplane loaded, or more accurately overloaded, with emergency relief supplies he had collected for victims of a devastating earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua (the same earthquake, incidentally, that drove Howard Hughes out of his top floor residency at the Managua Hilton). So why would the great and famous and wealthy Roberto Clemente need to personally accompany relief supplies to Managua? Because Nicaragua at the time was run by the Somoza family, and shipments of money and relief supplies kept mysteriously disappearing into Nicaraguan Army warehouses and Somoza-family bank accounts while the poor and powerless of Managua suffered in the streets and died.
Clemente’s stature in Latin America at the time was such that his presence would ensure that these relief supplies would not be stolen by Somoza or his army, but would make it into the hands of suffering. So Clemente waved goodbye to his wife and children and climbed aboard that ill-fated flight. The overloaded plane plunged into the Caribbean shortly after taking off from San Juan en route to Managua. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
So, do you think the Mariners could use a Roberto Clemente in their clubhouse right about now? For that matter, do you think that maybe the whole world could use a few more Clementes these days?