Clemente Award finalists include six Hispanic players


MIAMI -- Since 1972, Major League Baseball annually has presented an award which recognizes the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, displays sportsmanship, takes an active role in his community and makes a significant contribution to his team. It is not by chance that the award is named after Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Hall of Fame right fielder who exhibited all of those qualities and whose spirit and goodwill made him one of baseball's best ambassadors.

The nominees are announced in September, which is the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States.

"Roberto Clemente was not only one of the best ballplayers of our time, but also a great example for every Latin American, on and off the field," said Puerto Rican first baseman, Carlos Delgado, from the New York Mets.

"The fact that the award is named after him highlights his figure and legacy," he added.

Last year, Delgado became the third Latin American and the second Puerto Rican to win the award, which honors Clemente's memory. Dominican Sammy Sosa and Puerto Rican Edgar Martinez won it in 1998 and 2004, respectively.

This year, six Hispanic players are among the 30 finalists: Dominicans David Ortiz (Boston), Vladimir Guerrero (Anaheim) and Albert Pujols (St. Louis); Puerto Ricans Jorge Posada (Yankees) and Raul Ibañez (Seattle); and Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera (Florida).

The winner of the 2007 Clemente Award will be announced during the World Series. For the first time, fans can participate in the selection process by casting their votes online at MLB.com through Oct. 5. The fans' choice, then, will count as one vote when a special panel convenes to select the 2007 winner. The selection panel includes Clemente's widow, Vera Clemente, along with baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

On Sept. 30, 1972 -- this Sunday is the 35th anniversary -- Clemente picked up his 3,000th hit, a double off Jon Matlack of the Mets. It was the last regular-season hit of Clemente's career.

Three months later, he died in a New Year's Eve plane crash while attempting to transport relief supplies to Nicaragua, which was struck by an earthquake on Dec. 23, 1972. In the week after Dec. 23, Clemente had arranged a number of supply flights in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, but heard that several of those flights had been intercepted by corrupt government officials and that the supplies hadn't reached the earthquake victims. He decided to be on the plane himself for the New Year's Eve flight in the hope that it would help ensure the supplies reached the survivors.

The plane crashed immediately after takeoff into the ocean off the coast Puerto Rico. Clemente's body was never found.

Originally known as The Commissioner's Award, the award was renamed in honor of Clemente after his death.

"Clemente is an example for everybody and we must always remember him, not only the fans, but all the Latin Americans that feel proud about our roots," Delgado said.

Hispanic Heritage Month, which celebrates the culture and traditions of the Latin community, was approved by the United States Congress in September 1968.

At the beginning of the 2007 major league baseball season, 246 out of the 849 players who made the 30 MLB rosters were born outside the United States. Of that number, 208 (about 84.5 percent) are Latin. The Latin countries with the most players in MLB are the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

"Our duty is to keep passing on the torch that was handed out by Latin pioneers, who opened the doors for us," Delgado said.

Enrique Rojas covers baseball for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com. He is a regular guest of ESPN Deportes Radio show Décima Entrada (10th Inning) and frequently contributes baseball analysis for ESPN Deportes/ESPN International versions of "SportsCenter." Prior to joining ESPN, Enrique was the Caribbean correspondent for The Associated Press.