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Clemente Still Hero in Pittsburgh

December 27, 1997

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Twenty-five years ago, a part of Pittsburgh died.

On Dec. 31, 1972, a week after Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception, the Steelers lost to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins in the AFC championship game. Disappointed Pittsburghers trudged off to the prerequisite holiday parties, discouraged because they had only a new year to celebrate and not a Super Bowl, too.

A few hours later, the Steelers’ loss didn’t seem nearly so important. The first day of 1973 brought unthinkably bad news that many in the city still can’t fully bring themselves to believe.

Roberto Clemente, the very soul of the Pittsburgh Pirates for nearly 20 years, was dead.

He was only 38 _ old for a ballplayer perhaps, but unquestionably young for a man so active, so talented, so handsome, so alive.

His best days in baseball were gone, but his skills had barely eroded. There was virtually no talk that he should retire _ just 15 months earlier he had led the Pirates to a World Series upset over the Baltimore Orioles. He talked of playing five more years.

Then, in a flash no longer than it took him to unleash one of his powerhouse throws from right field, he was gone, his life wiped out by a plane crash as he helped haul tons of relief supplies from his native Puerto Rico to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua.

A disbelieving city rushed to its televisions to see the images that remain sledgehammered into the memories of a generation of Pirates fans.

Of Clemente’s wife, Vera, standing disconsolate on a patch of Puerto Rican beach, watching as rescue workers failed to retrieve his body. Of Manny Sanguillen, his teammate and a man who idolized him, relentlessly plunging time after time into the unyielding waters to find the friend he was not convinced was gone. Of devastated Puerto Ricans, tears streaming down their faces as they grieved for the man they revered, and still do, like a king.

They were separated by nearly 2,000 miles, a tropical sea, different languages and vast economic and cultural differences, but on this Monday morning, the people of Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico shared an uncommon grief and one unanswerable question.

Why?

To this day, they ask the same question.

``I still see him sometimes when I am alone,″ said Vera Clemente, who married her husband eight years before his death and raised his three sons. ``People remember him as a ballplayer, but he was so much more. He was a father, a husband, a wonderful man.″

Steve Blass, a teammate and now a Pirates broadcaster, talks of sometimes looking out onto the green expanse below him at Three Rivers Stadium and seeing the unmistakable image of Clemente _ running, sliding, smiling, taking a carom off the wall and rocketing a one-hop throw to the plate.

``He was the one player that players on other teams didn’t want to miss,″ Blass said. ``They’d run out of the clubhouse to watch him take batting practice. He could make a 10-year veteran act like a 10-year-old kid.″

Pittsburgh remembers him, too, even though Pirates fans must be about 30 to retain any memory of seeing him play in person. Go to any Pirates game, and it is impossible not to be reminded of the man known as the Great One.

From the statue outside Three Rivers Stadium, to the No. 21 jerseys that abound in the grandstands, to the T-shirts that bear his likeness, Clemente seems to be everywhere.

And while merchandise and memorabilia sales are driven by the 20-something crowd that is much too young to have seen him play, Clemente’s jerseys and shirts remain by far the Pirates’ most popular. His family is wary of overexposure, of cheapening the image of what once was baseball’s proudest player, but, in Pittsburgh, anything with Clemente’s likeness sells.

His picture still hangs on bedroom walls of countless Little Leaguers. Hospitals, playgrounds and schools are named in his honor, not only in his native country but his adopted one, too.

There is a Roberto Clemente school in Philadelphia, the first in that city ever named for a Hispanic, and a Roberto Clemente Field in Germany. In Pittsburgh, the larger-than-life statue that portrays his unforgettable swing stands across the street from Roberto Clemente Park.

Remarkably, Clemente enjoys far greater popularity now than when he won 12 Gold Glove awards, four NL batting titles and played in 12 consecutive All-Star games. The reason why reflects changes not only in American society, but in an ever-shrinking Pittsburgh.

His greatest seasons, in the 1960s, often were witnessed by some of the smallest crowds in Pirates history as the team spent its final few seasons in Forbes Field, once a jewel of a ballpark but by then a crumbling relic. There was no TBS, no ESPN, no play of the day and only occasional live telecasts, so many of his greatest plays went unrecorded and unrecognized.

A fan in Nebraska, far removed from Pittsburgh, might see him play only twice a year, in the All-Star game or the one Game-of-the-Week appearance the Pirates might make.

Clemente was the first black superstar in a mostly white, mostly blue collar town, but also the first Latin, too, and his initial exposure to racism came in the city. Late in his career, he talked unforgivingly of being pulled over late at night by Pittsburgh police officers for no apparent reason until they realized who he was, of being separated from his white teammates during spring training in a still largely segregated South.

To a man whose dignity and passion were as important to him as his ability to play baseball, such disgraces not only were unjustifiable but inexcusable. As a result, the pride that fueled his intensity on the field often was mistaken for arrogance, even haughtiness.

He was always popular and respected in Pittsburgh, but it took his death for the city to realize what it had lost _ not just a great athlete, arguably the greatest in the franchise’s history, but a humanitarian, a cultural icon, a hero.

That is the Roberto Clemente remembered today in Pittsburgh.

``He gave the term `complete’ a new meaning,″ former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn said during his 1973 eulogy to Clemente. ``He made the word `superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.″

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