In our society today, the term hero is used rather loosely, especially in the sports world. A hero is defined as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. Roberto Clemente personified those characteristics.
While I am too young to have seen Clemente play, I read enough about him to know that he was not only one of the greatest baseball players of all time, but he was also a hero in every sense of the word. He accomplished amazing feats on the field and influenced and helped so many others off the field.
Author David Maraniss wrote a wonderful biography that describes the ballplayer, the trailblazer, and the humanitarian. Clemente was one of the first Latin American ballplayers in the major leagues, and because of his courage, determination, and example, he inspired so many others to pursue their dream of professional baseball. Maraniss describes that after his team won the 1971 World Series, Clemente “brought pride to all of Latin America by choosing to speak in Spanish to honor his parents back home.” Today, there are well over 200 Latin American players on Major League rosters, making up a significant percentage of the entire league.
Clemente played long before the big money contracts for professional athletes. In 1958, Clemente passed up an opportunity to play winter ball and, instead, enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. He remained in the Reserves until1964. Clemente would regularly visit sick children in the hospital not only in Pittsburgh but in other National League cities. Maraniss writes, “The hospital visits were rarely publicized, but ailing kids seemed to know about them everywhere.” On December 31, 1972, Clemente boarded a plane loaded with relief supplies for Nicaragua that had been stricken by an earthquake. The plane crashed into the ocean, killing those aboard.
Clemente, the first Latin American player ever to be inducted, would be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1973. But this accomplishment pales in comparison to all those he helped and inspired along his journey. According to Maraniss, infielder Tony Taylor would make a point to educate young Latino players on Clemente. Taylor would say, “He is your heritage, but more than that he is what you can become.”
As we ring in the new year, may we remember these words from Clemente and redeem our time: “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”