In fact, it became his abiding passion. His relatives and friends tried to temper his expectations, but Roberto was determined. “I wanted to be a ballplayer. I became convinced God wanted me to.”
When he was nineteen, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Clemente to play for their
His career reads like something out of a script. David Maraniss, his most recent biographer, summarizes:
As he came into his prime during the 1960s, Clemente began to speak about civil rights, and against injustice anywhere. After his friend and personal hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was slain in 1968, Roberto asked his team to delay the start of their season, to honor the great civil rights leader during his burial. They obliged.
Clemente’s determination to prove the full equality of minorities, and inspire the underprivileged he did so much to help, propelled him to strive for even greater heights on the playing field. In the 1971 World Series, at the age of 37, Clemente led his team to a second world championship, hitting an amazing .414 against the heralded Baltimore Orioles pitching staff, which had four twenty-game winners. Boog Powell, the Orioles First Baseman, marveled: “Nobody hit .400 off our pitching staff. Maybe off of one pitcher . . . a guy might have one guy’s number, but not our whole pitching staff.”
In one memorable game, Clemente hit the wall head first, caught the ball, tumbled down, and held on. When one sportswriter told him, “Roberto, I’ve seen you play a lot of games, and that’s the best catch I’ve ever seen you make,” Clemente replied, with quiet confidence, “If the ball is in the park, and the game is on the line, I will catch the ball.”
Yet in all the discussions about Clemente that have marked the anniversary of his death, there has been one thing largely missing from these otherwise moving tributes—the centrality of his faith to his life and work.
“My husband was a very religious man,” his wife Vera told the Pittsburgh Catholic. “His faith guided him to help others.” Father Alvin Gutierrez, who knew the Clementes well, and concelebrated a memorial Mass several days after Clemente’s sudden passing, underscored that, and stressed the importance of Roberto’s “Catholic ethos” to me.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the jubilant locker room after the 1971 World Series. When he was awarded the Series MVP, he thanked the presenter in English, then immediately spoke in Spanish, blessing his family, thanking his parents, and asking for their blessing as well on “the most important day of my life.” It was a moment all Latinos who saw remember with pride and emotion—and still moves anyone who watches it today. “With Roberto it was always faith and family first, everything else second,” said Father Gutierrez. Just like his parents had taught him, back in
In fact, it was the Hall of Famer’s faith that led to him to offer his life for the sake of others. After an earthquake struck
Christians don’t often think of athletes as witnesses for their faith—especially these days in a sports world marred by greed, illegal drugs and scandal—but if ever there was one, it was Roberto Clemente. He was not just a baseball star, but one of Heaven’s as well.