Roberto Clemente: The ultimate teammate.
On a baseball field, little exceeded the sum-total talents of Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente. Fans of the sport have long venerated five-tool players with hagiographic fervor. Excepting Willie Mays, no contemporaneous player excelled at as many things as prime 1960s Clemente. To see him at the park was to be dazzled, as if a diamond had taken human form out in right field, outfitted with a cannon for an arm.
That formidable dossier of skills was exceeded by a transcendent ability to blaze a path. A native of Puerto Rico, Clemente was the first Latino star in a game that now teems with such fixtures of the firmament. Thank the quintessential Pittsburgh Pirate.
As a collector of baseball cards, I got into Clemente as a kid. His first name was anglicized as “Bob” on his earliest Topps baseball cards, but there was no diminishing the great Roberto's individuality.
He played the game as no one else had and was easily the best player on the beloved 1960 Pirates squad that toppled the juggernaut Yankees, and he remained so eleven years later when the Pirates won it all again.
But there was a skill possessed by Clemente that was far more impressive than the talents he fused on the ball field.
On September 30, 1972, Clemente laced a rope of a double that landed him squarely at the legendary 3000th hit mark in what was to be his last game, though no one knew it. The artist formerly known as “Bob” was an All-Star at thirty-eight and still impressively productive.
Off-seasons meant charity work for Clemente and that one would be no different. Two days prior to Christmas, the Nicaraguan capital of Managua was devastated by an earthquake. Immediately Clemente organized three relief flights that would bring much-needed supplies, but corrupt officials diverted all three planes.
Thinking his presence might make a difference, Clemente himself boarded a fourth plane fifty years ago on New Year’s Eve departing from his native Puerto Rico. There was engine failure on takeoff, and the plane crashed into the Atlantic without any survivors.
Clemente played the game with a joy that made it feel as if he was playing for others, giving to them with his play, and it struck me from the first that he lived his life the same way.
Teammates are precious in sports. You don’t have to like a given teammate, but you must do the right thing by them as teammates.
I was awed by what a man like this could do as a player, but it was Clemente who helped me understand the real playing field on which we all have a key position.
It’s up to us to be the best teammate we can for everyone else, in the human sense. That’s what it means to be on a team in the Roberto Clemente way.