A hero taken too soon

When you’re five-years-old, you don’t have whole lot of worries. Your biggest concern is whether Superman or Batman would win in a winner-takes-all battle; whether to eat the inside of the Oreo cookie first or save it to the end; and when it’s going to snow so that you can try out your new sled on the long hill by your house.

Pretty simple life, at least that’s the way it was for me until New Year’s Eve 1972.

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On that day, I lost a hero. My very first hero. I don’t have a lot of early memories from that time — I was too young — but I vaguely remember watching a TV news announcer stating that Roberto Clemente had died on New Year’s Eve in a country and continent I had never heard of before in my short life. Roberto Clemente was my favorite baseball player on my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. He died when the plane he chartered crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

I forget if I cried or if I even understand what it meant. I just remember feeling fine one day, still on a Christmas high, and then waking up another and feeling sad, like I had lost something important to me.

Clemente was one of family’s favorite players and my hero. I had a Pirates batting helmet that I had stolen from one of my brothers. It bobbled from side to side on my head, but I didn’t care, because I wanted to be just like Clemente. He had helped the Pirates win the World Series the previous year and had just finished the 1972 season with his 3000th career hit.

As I got older and read more about Clemente’s life, he became an even bigger hero for me. I could recite his batting statistics and his many different contributions verbatim. He was proud of his Puerto Rican heritage and stood up for minority rights. He contributed to a myriad of different causes, most involving children. He helped build parks and fields throughout Pittsburgh and Central America and was renowned for his humanitarian work.

When I played baseball years later, I tried to mimic Clemente’s unorthodox batting swing, chaotic running style and cannon of an arm. I would frequently take big sweeping slides into second base just so I could get dirty my uniform and look like one my favorite pictures of Clemente. Unfortunately, I lacked Clemente’s speed, power, and swing, but that didn’t stop me.

Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, I didn’t come across many other kids of Latino heritage, but as I read everything I could about Clemente’s life, I saw that even someone who didn’t necessarily look or act like me, in fact had much in common with me. He simply wanted a better life and to play the game that he loved. He showed me that in the end we really are more alike than we think.

He showed me too what a true hero really could be. I’ve always found it funny that many of the people society calls or flaunts as “heroes” eventually show their true colors. Their picture gets plastered across a police blotter somewhere or they sell out, looking for more fame or money. Clemente’s star though over the years has never dimmed, but gotten brighter. He’s respected for what he did off the field as much today as he was in the 60s and 70s.

I’m not sure what made me think of Clemente this year on New Year’s Eve, but it amazed me even more to think that on that day 43 years ago he was trying to help others. If he had lived, he would have been 81 this year. Thank you Roberto!

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