Posted by:
Neal Coolong


I'll say it again: The four opponents I defeated en route to the OATTA championship made it about as hard as possible. Congratulations to Chris Cole, PlayAngryFan, BSchwartz07 and Elway4Prez on four fantastic Throwdowns.

The subject came up in our group of what the picture of our group should be, and what the winner of our first tournament should choose.

The immediate response: Naked chicks.

Hard to argue with that. But I'd rather go in another direction.

The older I get, I find the sad realization of life is you don't know how great something is while you have it. I think it has something to do with youth and the immaturity that naturally comes with that. I always knew how great my grandmother was. Born of pure-bread Spanish ancestry, she fit the fiery, yet 100 percent devoted reputation of her bloodline. Helluva good cook, too.

She grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, with the legendary Roberto Clemente. Obviously, that's not the reason I loved my grandmother, but hearing stories of the man was a pretty cool thing to have when she visited us from Pittsburgh.

My grandmother married my grandfather - a Marine stationed in Carolina during the aftermath of World War II - about the same time Clemente was signed by Dodgers scout Al Campanis, and sent to the minors in Montreal.

You might remember Campanis as the guy who signed Jackie Robinson.

Clemente, a black Puerto Rican, did not speak great English, and had a heavy Spanish accent. In the mid-50s in the United States, this wasn't a desirable combination. He is as much a testament to baseball being the true international language as Robinson, but at the time he was sent to Pittsburgh to play for the Pirates, my grandmother told me he had a difficult time accepting the transition from Latin Puerto Rico to blue-collar Pittsburgh.

My grandfather, she would tell me, assisted Roberto in getting acclamated to Pittsburgh, and they would host he and his beautiful wife, Vera, for dinner quite often. I can't imagine my grandfather thought this was much of a chore, considering how popular Clemente was, and is, to this day, known as having the best arm in the history of the game.

My grandfather and Roberto struck up a friendship that defied the times. It wasn't generally accepted that blacks and whites would be great friends, but Clemente - despite his complete refusal to be given anything because of his status as a player - and my grandfather came together through their love of the game of baseball.

Despite the Steelers success in Pittsburgh, and their complete domination of the headlines in the local media, Clemente is still clearly the hero of Pittsburgh. He represented the Old School values of the game; hard work, effort, and competition. The right field wall at PNC Park in Pittsburgh was intentionally set to 21 feet to honor him.

He, my grandparents, and Vera, held a strong living friendship until Dec. 31, 1972. They shared a dinner quickly that evening, as Roberto was going to personally deliver supplies and all the help he could give to the earthquake-stricken country of Nicaragua. Clemente became the first Latino-born player to reach 3,000 hits in the final game of the 1972 season, and was already the first Latino World Series MVP from the previous season. He figured he had more important things to do. The supplies had been robbed the first time he tried to send them, so he was going to deliver them himself to ensure their safety.

Vera and my grandmother stayed behind, and Roberto and my grandfather drove to the airport. Roberto asked my grandfather one last time to join him. My grandfather declined, citing a need to work at the steel factory or risk losing his job.

They shook hands, and Clemente was never seen again. His plane crashed that night, along with the supplies he intended to give out of decency and good will toward mankind.

All the people who were angry with my parents for getting married on a day the Pirates were out of town (meaning Clemente wouldn't be at the ceremony) cried. The whole city cried. Baseball cried. Despite losing several fine players in WWII, it was the first time the game truly lost an international ambassador. Baseball was expanding beyond the borders of the U.S., and Clemente was the finest example they had. While Robinson broke the color barrier, Clemente was the first pioneer of the expansion to other countries - something we see on every roster of every team today.

The Pirates retired Clemente's No. 21 at the start of the 1973 season. Not surprising, considering his unbelievable accomplishments, all met in the teeth of racism and predjudice.

Four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, led the National League in outfield assists for five straight seasons, two World Series championships, one WS MVP (he hit safely in all 14 WS games he played), and was the NL MVP in 1967.

I could rattle these stats off in my sleep. My grandfather never stopped talking about Clemente. He lived to see two of his grandsons play college baseball, but one of the best memories I have of my grandfather is how he would give us a hug after watching us play, and say, "That ain't, bad, but it ain't s**t compared to Roberto."

He was right.

Sadly, my grandmother followed my grandfather in death in May. I got a chance to speak with Vera and their son, Roberto Jr. (Robertito) at the funeral. Robertito was a minor league player with the Phillies organization for a bit, and was only six when his father passed away. We talked about the game for a bit, swapping stories, talking about old teammates and coaches. He spoke of his father in a very somber tone, almost as if he ached to have known his father, but aware that he already knew him very well.

He told me something about his dad I did not know. It's now perhaps my favorite part of Clemente's legacy. He was given a $10,000 bonus to sign with the Dodgers as soon as he graduated high school. He verbally agreed with Campanis, but soon after that, the Milwaukee Brewers offered him $30,000 to sign. Clemente refused for no reason other than he had already told Campanis he would sign with him.

That's character. We see very few examples of people living by their word in professional sports (holdouts, Carlos Boozer, etc.).

So, in light of the fact that Aug. 6 is the 34th anniversary of when the Baseball Writers of America made Clemente the first person to be inducted into the Hall of Fame without waiting the mandatory five years after retirement, I think it's fully appropriate to make the No. 21 patch the Pirates wore during the 1973 season the new picture of the OATTA.

Robinson had his number retired by baseball, and mentions Clemente almost as if he was an after-thought. Clemente did just as much, if not more, and went through as much as he did. He was a better player, too, and one can't be more of a humanitarian than "The Great Roberto" (in my grandfather's voice). He deserves far more than this trifle of an honor, but it feels like the right thing to do.

Because doing the right thing is, in and of itself, Clemente's legacy.


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