Clemente's profound impact still resonates
Pirates Hall of Famer opened the door for generations of Latin American players
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When Manny Mota -- a fixture with the Dodgers as a player and coach and a figure of reverence in Latin America -- tells young Latino ballplayers about his late, great friend Roberto Clemente, he focuses more on the Hall of Famer's competitive will than Clemente's surpassing skill.
"I tell them how hard he worked, how much he loved the game, his passion and intensity for baseball," said Mota, Clemente's teammate in Pittsburgh for six seasons. "I want them to understand that if you want to be great, you have to put everything you have into it, every day.
"It's kind of hard to explain how much he meant to me and all the players from Latin America who followed him into baseball. Roberto was our Jackie Robinson. He was our first big star, and he was so prideful about representing Puerto Rico and all the people from his part of the world. He was a great man who did not accept injustice. He was a fighter to the end."
Clemente perished in a plane crash in the last hours of 1972 while attempting to fly relief goods into earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. It was the kind of act that reflected how selfless and proactive he was as a citizen of the world, leading Major League Baseball to honor him with its annual Roberto Clemente Award for humanitarian service.
When Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was presented with the award in 2012, it was a reminder that Clemente was originally signed in 1954 by Brooklyn Dodgers scout Al Campanis. The Dodgers tried to hide him in their farm system, but they lost Clemente to Pittsburgh nine months later in the Rule 5 Draft. He became the leader of some great Pirates clubs.
"It is an incredible honor to receive this award," Kershaw said. "Just being associated with someone like Roberto Clemente is truly humbling and I am extremely grateful."
Vera Clemente, Roberto's widow, beamed with the choice.
"I am happy to congratulate Clayton Kershaw on being named the recipient of this year's Roberto Clemente Award," she said. "The work that this young man has accomplished to help youth around the world is wonderful, and we are proud to welcome him among the many players who have carried on Roberto's legacy."
The burgeoning impact of Latinos on the sport serves to underscore the far-reaching influence of Clemente, whose splendor on the grass and in the batter's box was matched by his social conscience and desire to make the world a better place for everyone -- notably the underprivileged.
A 12-time Gold Glove winner, Clemente was a four-time National League batting champion, the 1966 NL Most Valuable Player and a .317 career hitter.
He is perhaps best remembered for his stunningly brilliant performance in the 1971 World Series for the champion Pirates against the Orioles. He hit .414 in seven games with two homers, two doubles and a triple while making breathtaking plays with his glove and arm in right field.
"He is a great example of determination and dedication," said Rangers right fielder Alex Rios, who was born and raised in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. "He is a guy who overcame a lot of adversity and became a great player. He is our biggest star, a big example to our young kids. His spirit is very alive at home. When you mention his name, he is an icon. His spirit is still very much alive."
Carlos Beltran, a Major League star since 1999 who will enrich the Yankees this season, grew up in Manati, Puerto Rico, with visions of No. 21, the great Clemente, dancing in his head. Beltran reached his first World Series last year with the Cardinals and came close with the 2006 Mets before they fell to St. Louis in the NL Championship Series.
"Of course, what Roberto did in the game of baseball means a lot -- especially to us in Puerto Rico," Beltran said. "As a kid, you always grow up aware of Roberto Clemente, what he did.
"You kind of think of being like him. But when you get to this point in your career, you've got to be your own person; I've got to be me. I play the outfield, too, but Roberto Clemente was a different player, a multi-talented player. It's a great feeling that people compare me or say they think I'm doing things that Roberto Clemente did. It's a great compliment. But I just have to go out and play the game."
Through the memories of parents and grandparents, kids hear tales of the great Clemente.
"My dad is from Cuba," Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado said, "and Roberto Clemente was one of his favorite players. I heard a lot about him growing up. He always played hard, played for his country. You hear great things about him off the field as well as on the field. You want to be like him.
"Latin players always go home and take care of their families [in the offseason]. That's part of the Roberto Clemente legacy, I think. He set a very high standard for all of us."
Arenado's teammate, Jhoulys Chacin, hails from Venezuela and is aware of Clemente's social influence. The pitcher sees the reluctance of some Latinos in communicating with an English-speaking media, concerned that their words might be misinterpreted. That, he believes, is an area where Clemente's powerful voice comes into play.
"He opened the door," Chacin said. "He did a lot for us to show us how we can be confident on the field and how we shouldn't be afraid to express ourselves. He was so strong. [His message was] we don't need to be shy. People know [English] is not our first language; they're not going to make fun of you. Let it go. You're going to get better and better. Everybody is shy in the beginning, but you have to try."
Clemente was born on Aug. 18, 1934, in Carolina, P.R., and he appeared in his final game on Oct. 11, 1972. His final regular-season at-bat, 11 days earlier, resulted in a double off the Mets' Jon Matlack -- hit No. 3,000 in Clemente's remarkable career.
"He was perfect for us," Chacin said, "showing us how we can handle a different culture, a different place from where you came from. He was a great example of how you can be yourself and still be successful. I don't know if a lot of the young guys know much about him, but they should."
Jose Mota, Manny's son and a former Major League infielder, alerts players in his role as a broadcaster to the profound meaning of Clemente.
"It's important that they know the role he had in opening up the sport," Mota said. "Young players can be a little more disconnected, but the guys who followed him -- [Orlando] Cepeda, [Juan] Marichal, Felipe [Alou] -- have done a good job of passing the word down.
"I think they're doing a good job in the schools [in Latin America] of keeping Clemente's legacy alive. And the Roberto Clemente Award is a big thing."
Both Manny and Jose Mota believe it would be a deserving tribute to introduce a Clemente award honoring the defensive player of the year in MLB.
"He was a great hitter," Manny Mota said, "but Roberto was best known for his defense when he played. He was the best right fielder we've ever seen."
As a young catcher coming up with the Dodgers, Angels manager Mike Scioscia was taught in Vero Beach, Fla., by a prior generation of players who revered Clemente.
"It's amazing to think that with some of these young guys now, their parents weren't born or were babies when Clemente died," Scioscia said. "But the influence he still has inside the game is amazing. People talk about him all the time. When a guy like [Yasiel] Puig comes up and makes a great play, your first thought is of Clemente. His image is very much alive -- and so is his influence on our game."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.