The image of the man they called "The Great One" is sitting at the dining room table, talking to my mother. It's still New Years Eve 1972, and I just woke up and am looking for the man people referred to as Señor Clemente, but who is Daddy to me.
That image is still fresh in my memory. He was then and forever will be a young 38 years old. He still had a 30-inch waistline and weighed the same as he was reported in the media guides for so many years. He looked like he could still play another five to seven years.
He possessed a sense of humor as good as his arm, and I remember after day games players and friends would come over for dinner and they would spend hours telling stories and jokes. What a great memory. Dad was an amazing impressionist. He would enjoy imitating many people and he was perfect at it.
At age 38 he was thinking of retiring, but he had an urgency to get to 3,000 hits. He talked about that with Mom and she would always say "If you don't hit it now, you will hit it next season." But he would say, "If I don't hit it now I never will." He had a premonition that he was going to die young and wanted to retire. He was tired of all the traveling and all the time he had to spend away from his family. He was planning to move us quietly to one of our properties in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
Dad had spent some time in Nicaragua a couple of months prior to that New Year's Eve day in 1972 and had become friendly with many people from Nicaragua while he was managing the Puerto Rico National Team at a goodwill tournament there. A devastating earthquake hit Managua just before Christmas and he immediately started a drive for relief supplies for this country that was in trouble. After sending two planes to Nicaragua, he was notified by the volunteers that the military in Nicaragua was not letting the supplies through to help the people in need. Despite my warning as a young 6-year-old boy not to get on the plane because it was going to crash, he still went on his mission of mercy.
That was the same man that had privately paid for others' surgeries, handed money to families in need, visited hospitals to shake hands and take pictures with children and adults alike. Dad never turned anyone away. He was such a private man that no one really knew all the great things he did for people. Ironically, he died in that plane crash trying to help others. That was the final chapter of the man, but the beginning of the legend.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of his biggest athletic accomplishment, a day that filled him with pride. He became the 11th player in Major League Baseball history to join the elite 3,000-hit club. Though he was proud to be the first Latino to reach that plateau, his biggest accomplishment was to be able to serve his fellow countrymen, Latinos and people of color by speaking out on civil-rights issues.
Dad was a very humble man, a man of great vision. A man so simple that when asked what number he wanted to wear on his back, he said No. 21 because he had 21 letters in his name. Every time I think of him he never looks a day older and he never will, that is why not only for me but for the rest of the world he will be forever young.
Roberto Clemente Jr. is a baseball broadcaster for ESPN International
The Roberto Clemente Walker Celebrity All-Star Weekend will take place in Puerto Rico, Nov. 8-10. For more information, call Nancy Navarro at Roberto Clemente Sports City at (787) 750-2100.
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