Every so often, Carlos Delgado will go on YouTube to watch highlights from a remarkable career and life that ended abruptly, tragically, 50 years ago. There, in old video, is Roberto Clemente darting into the right-field corner, fielding a caroming ball and then unleashing a laser throw from one of the most powerful arms baseball has ever seen.
Or there is Clemente lashing a drive off Jon Matlack of the Mets to the warning track in left-center at old Three Rivers Stadium, a late-season double that became Clemente’s 3,000th, and last, hit.
Those grainy reminders underscore the greatness of Clemente as a player. But to Delgado and many others, Clemente’s humanitarian legacy supersedes the one he left on a Hall of Fame plaque.
“He was bigger off the field than on, which I know is saying a lot — that’s one of the best players ever,” Delgado says.
Clemente died on New Year’s Eve 1972 in a plane crash while trying to deliver supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. He was only 38 years old. He spoke out about the hate he faced as a Latino player in the 1950s and ‘60s, a different era long before the sports world embraced diversity. His life and career made him a hero for later players such as Delgado.
All of that is why Delgado, who, like Clemente, is from Puerto Rico, is thrilled to be part of Major League Baseball’s ceremonies Thursday at Citi Field on Roberto Clemente Day, the annual celebration of one of the game’s jewels.
“For me, being Puerto Rican, it means the world,” Delgado says. “It’s a great opportunity for other people to get to know and understand the history, the contributions, of Roberto Clemente.
“What he did socially, fighting against racism, I think it’s very important. He spoke up about it. As a player who came after him, I feel grateful. Players like Roberto Clemente opened the doors for Latino players to follow our dreams.
“You realize how great he was and he was playing in much tougher conditions. It was rougher times for a Black Latin American playing the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s remarkable.”
Thursday, Delgado, Al Leiter and as many as 13 other former winners of the Roberto Clemente Award, MLB’s highest philanthropic honor, will take part in charity endeavors in New York and then be recognized along with members of the Clemente family before the Mets play Clemente’s old club, the Pirates, that evening. Delgado won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2006.
As Leiter, the former pitcher who won the Award in 2000 while he was with the Mets, puts it, “That award goes beyond what we did as players. I really treasure my Roberto Clemente Award and what it means…You’re more than a celebrity baseball player who’s supposed to win games. Your role is not just as a pitcher, but being part of the community you are representing.
“I just thought it was kind of what you do and what you’re supposed to be.”
Thursday, all players, managers and coaches on the Pirates and Mets will wear No. 21, Clemente’s number, on their uniforms. As one of several other ways the day is being recognized across baseball, all past Clemente Award winners and nominees in other games will have the option of wearing No. 21, too. And on Thursday night, MLB Network will show “MLB Tonight: A Conversation,” an hour-long program about Clemente.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Delgado says, “Since you’re a little kid, you get the story of Clemente. In the history books. Arenas and schools are named for him. When I got into sports, you start hearing your coaches talking about him, how he passed away. You hear your grandpa telling stories about when he came to play here or manage in the winter league.”
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The town where Delgado grew up, Aguadilla, is where Clemente did his last baseball clinic for kids, Delgado says. “I was six months old when he passed away,” Delgado says. “But this is the magic of Clemente — it’s 50 years ago and we can still talk about him as if he’s here or as if it were yesterday.
“I think the legacy, instead of winding down, is ramping up. Maybe we didn’t realize how big his impact was. Now with social media, all the media outlets, information travels much faster. It’s a great vehicle for people to understand, especially younger generations.”
Clemente was a 15-time All-Star who won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves. He was the MVP of the 1971 World Series and the MVP of the National League in 1966. He won four NL batting titles. After he died, the five-year waiting period for the Baseball Hall of Fame was waived and he was elected in 1973.
Delgado and others believe another honor should be bestowed on Clemente. Delgado hopes one day Clemente’s No. 21 is retired throughout baseball, just like Jackie Robinson’s No. 42. The Pirates retired No. 21 in 1973.
“What he represented to Latin Americans is what Jackie did to African-Americans,” says Delgado, who wore No. 21 several times during his 17-year career as a tribute. “This is not a competition between them — it would be in addition to Jackie.
“I think Clemente’s career, his history, is a breakthrough. He was a great player, but he also had values and convictions. In really tough times, he made it. He was vocal about issues that athletes sometimes weren’t. I think it’s important, for younger generations, to promote those values.
“If you are seven or eight years old and you look out at a game and see the retired number, you might say, ‘Daddy, why is that number retired?’”
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