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Playing catch with Clemente

9/30/2002

Thwaaack.

Nestled in the leather web of my Rawlings glove -- a Mickey Mantle edition -- was the baseball. It was one of those palm burners you'd expect from someone who could throw a strike from right field to home plate, but the sting felt so good. Perhaps it was adrenaline. I tossed the ball back, making sure to conform to the style I had imitated hundreds of times before as a determined 10-year-old Little Leaguer. Forget about those grounders that somehow kept their course, skimming between my legs. Or those fly balls that often were difficult for me to get under. This time, it was different. No errors allowed.

It wasn't the most baseball-friendly setting on that day, Dec. 26, 1972. But it sure would do. I was playing catch with Roberto Clemente.

We were in a warehouse, across the street from the Coliseum in San Juan that would bear his name the following year. I was there with my mother and two friends and their moms, there to deliver some money and canned goods collected in our neighborhood, destined for earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

We were answering a call. His call. When Clemente appealed to kids to help fellow Nicaraguan children left homeless during Christmas, I teamed with some neighborhood friends. Canvassing the block, we collected money placed in a shoebox, perhaps as much as 200 bucks or more, and piled up canned goods with a cart in tow.

Aided by well-known Puerto Rican TV personalities, Clemente took the lead in asking for the donations. Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, had been ravaged by a quake that struck just days before Christmas. There were reports of up to 10,000 dead and hundreds of thousands more left without shelter in its aftermath. Clemente had played ball in a winter tournament in Nicaragua a few months before, under the guise of a World Series of the Americas. He was well-liked in the Central American country, and thus he was determined to help.

So there he was. El número 21, the star in the Pittsburgh Pirates outfield. The guy who had just delivered his 3,000th hit on the last day of the 1972 regular season.

During his storied career, Clemente had four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, National League MVP honors and two World Series MVPs. I distinctly recall watching the 1971 World Series, when the Pirates played my beloved Baltimore Orioles (I had a Washington connection, and never was able to catch on with the Senators). The island of Puerto Rico was glued to the sets for that series, and anytime Clemente would step up to the plate, it was a moment of immense national pride. When he walloped a homer in pivotal Game 6, then did the same in Game 7, I can't forget that outcry heard in unison in the neighborhood.

Clemente was an idol for any kid growing up in Puerto Rico at the time. Everyone fought for a jersey with the No. 21 to wear. We would re-enact his heroics on the baseball field. A throw from the outfield would not permit a one-hop. The cannon-of-an-arm was in constant development. Ahí viene Clemente, muchachos -- Here comes Clemente, kids -- was a popular slogan of a TV ad that depicted Little Leaguers gathered at practice. All of a sudden El Grande appears. The kids mob him.

El Gran Clemente greeted us at the entrance of the warehouse. I don't remember if there was anybody else there with him. But it did seem strange that we were the only ones there. When we were done playing catch, he dedicated his autograph. One for me, another for my sister, one more for my little brother. Then he signed my glove and even my shirt. These were the first items in my collection of all things Clemente, one that has been nurtured in waves throughout the years, comprised of baseball cards, placards, posters, a street sign replica, a commemorative baseball, a Pittsburgh beer can and the ubiquitous bobble-head doll.

Clemente was at the warehouse to personally oversee the donations that he was committed to deliver the relief in person when early reports pointed to the plundering of disaster relief by the ruling Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. He put in reportedly 20 hours a day during the five days of the collection drive, sacrificing his Christmas.

And then, on New Year's Eve, he gave up his life when the overloaded DC-7 plunged into the ocean minutes into the flight.

It's not easy to put into words the feeling of deep sorrow, the sense of disbelief and the tears that were shed. I was just one, in an island of 3 million, sunk in collective mourning.

It wasn't supposed to end that way.

Carlos Cabán is chief editor of ESPNdeportes.com