How We Play Baseball in Puerto Rico

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It was about 10:30 p.m. — not the time of day you’d normally go to a museum. But I went straight there after playing a night game in Pittsburgh in 2012. I had called earlier in the day, talked to the guy in charge and told him I wanted to visit the museum that night. He said it would be closed, but he would open it for me.

The museum is located in an old firehouse in Pittsburgh. When my wife and I got there, it was mostly dark inside, but the spotlights shining on the memorabilia were bright. We were the only people in the building. It was a private tour — just me, my wife and the curator.

Being a Major League Baseball player from Puerto Rico, visiting this place — The Clemente Museum — was like a dream come true.

Normally, you’re not allowed to touch things in a museum. But the curator let us do whatever we wanted. I got to touch the Rawlings spikes he wore when he used to run down fly balls in right field. I got to hold the bats he used to get some of his 3,000 hits. I got to run my fingers across the stitching of the number 21 on the back of a jersey he actually wore in a game.

I never felt closer to my hero than I did that night.

It’s hard to explain what Roberto Clemente means to Puerto Rico. I don’t know any words to describe an impact that big. He was an icon.

It’s like … when you’re a kid in Puerto Rico and you have history class in middle school, you learn about Puerto Rican politics and government. You learn about Christopher Columbus. About la Guerra Hispano-Estadounidense — the Spanish-American War. The Treaty of Paris.

And you learn about Roberto Clemente.

Not about the player he was — though you learn about that too — but the man that he was, and everything he represented.

That’s how important he is to our island’s culture.

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Growing up in Manatí, Puerto Rico, I would come home after school and do my assignments and then go outside and run to the usual spots where the kids in my neighborhood would play baseball in the streets. We used a broomstick as a bat and spun a ball out of rolls of tape. With the leftover tape, we made a square on the wall. When you were pitching, if you hit inside the square, it was a strike. We made bases out of whatever we could find — like a cardboard box or somebody’s T-shirt.

We were always playing outside. We didn’t have PlayStation or video games at home. We’d dream about things like that at Christmastime. Every Christmas, I’d be like, “Mom, I want Santa to bring me a video game this year.”

But when Santa came, he always brought sports stuff. A basketball. A volleyball. A new pair of spikes.

Santa never brought electronics.

I remember when I was five years old and Santa brought me my first baseball glove. I would sit on the front steps every afternoon with my glove and wait for my dad to come home from work so he could throw me some balls and we could play in the yard or in the street. My dad used to play amateur baseball in Puerto Rico. So did my uncles and my older brother. Baseball runs in my family, like it does in many Puerto Ricans’ blood.

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My brother, Nino, is five years older than me. We used to play baseball together a lot, but as he got older, he started playing with older kids and doing whatever else the older kids were doing. You know … he got too cool for his little brother. So when I couldn’t get him to play baseball with me and I couldn’t find a group of kids playing somewhere in the street — which was rare — I would take a bag of balls and my bat and glove and walk to the baseball fields about 30 minutes away, and I would play by myself. I would stand at home plate, throw the balls up in the air and hit them all over the outfield. Then I would go out and throw the balls back to home plate like I was throwing runners out at home.

I would do that for hours, until it got dark or I got tired — whichever came first.

Darkness usually came first.

We had a lot of good Puerto Rican representation in the major leagues when I was growing up, and one thing most of those guys had in common was that they were good at everything on the field. To be a Puerto Rican ballplayer meant you were a multidimensional player.

Baseball runs in my family, like it does in many Puerto Ricans’ blood.

You had guys like Ivan Rodriguez, who could hit for power but also throw people out as a catcher. Roberto Alomar, who had a great glove, a good arm and was a great hitter. Bernie Williams, who could run, play defense and hit for both average and for power from both sides of the plate. There wasn’t anything on the field Bernie couldn’t do. We watched Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Delgado and Edgar Martinez — we idolized these guys, and we modeled the way we played as kids after how they played. We wanted to be good at everything. We wanted to be fast, develop our arms, be the best hitters we could be, work on defense and fundamentals — that’s what it meant to be a Puerto Rican ballplayer, and that’s how we all learned to play the game.

And all of this can be traced back to one man: Roberto Clemente. That’s how he played the game. And even though I never got to see him play, I read about him and learned about him as a kid, like all Puerto Rican kids did. I studied him and asked teachers and other adults questions about him. By the time I made it to the major leagues in 1998, Roberto Clemente and his legacy had become a huge part of my life and my motivation.

And then as a professional ballplayer, I was able to get even closer to my hero than I ever thought I could.

***

At AT&T Park in San Francisco, right when you enter the clubhouse, there’s a little room just off to the right. The door is always open, and just about every day, you’d find Willie Mays and Willie McCovey sitting in there together, just hanging out, talking.

If you know anything about me, you know that I’m always asking questions trying to gain knowledge and get different perspectives. And these guys are legends. So when I got traded to the Giants in 2011 and I started seeing those two sitting in that room every day, I made it a point to stop and sit with them for 10–15 minutes every chance I got, just to pick their brains.

We talked about baseball — about hitting. We talked about racism and what it was like for black and Latino players back when they played, and I showed my appreciation for what they went through and how they opened doors for guys like me who came after them.

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One day, I asked them to tell me about Roberto Clemente.

Clemente died a little more than four years before I was born. I never got to see him play. Everything I know about him I learned from hearing stories and reading about him.

But these guys played against him. They were on the same field with him and played on All-Star teams with him. They knew him.

And I’ll never forget what Willie Mays said.

“He was the perfect player.”

He said Clemente was the best player he had ever seen. He told me that Clemente could do everything on the field — how he played the game hard and with so much passion and how he tried to be perfect at everything he did.

It was one of those things where — I knew that already. I had heard that many times before. But this was Willie Mays, one of the greatest ever, and he’s saying that Roberto Clemente is the greatest he’s ever seen?

C’mon … I just thought that was amazing.

And I felt such a rush of pride.

When you hear something like that, you can understand how players like Bernie Williams, Ivan Rodriguez and Roberto Alomar learned to play the game the way they did. They were carrying on a tradition of how baseball is played in Puerto Rico that was set by the generations that came before them — led by Roberto Clemente.

To truly learn about the man on the field, I asked Willie Mays — someone who knew best how he played the game, because he shared the field with him.

But to truly learn about the man off the field — and I don’t know if there’s a player in the world in any sport who is more recognized for what he did off the field than Roberto Clemente — I decided to ask the person who knew him best off the field.

His wife, Vera Clemente.

A good friend of mine connected me to Vera, and one day, my friend and I drove to her house in Puerto Rico to have a conversation about Roberto. I sat in her house for hours just asking questions about what kind of man he was, what his concerns were, how he handled different situations.

Just like that night in the museum, I had never felt closer to my hero. Talking to Vera that day — it was like I was talking to Roberto.

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We talked about how he stood up for players’ rights at a time when Latino players were being discriminated against. How his English was not very good when he got to Pittsburgh, but he didn’t let that bother him. He demanded respect anyway. We talked about how — like Jackie Robinson did for African-American ballplayers — he helped break barriers and open the doors for Latino players in Major League Baseball.

We also talked a lot about the day he died. It was New Year’s Eve — a time normally spent with family — and he was getting on a plane to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua after it had been hit with an earthquake. Roberto wanted to be on the plane himself to make sure the supplies got to the people who needed them.

Vera told me she asked him not to go — to wait until the next day and to spend New Year’s Eve at home in Puerto Rico with his family. But Roberto said no — that the people of Nicaragua needed him, and they could not wait until tomorrow. So he left that day.

We talked about what it was like in Puerto Rico when word spread about the plane crash — when people heard that Roberto had died.

There is nobody we hold closer than Roberto Clemente. He may have died, but his soul is still alive in all Puerto Ricans.

It was like the island went silent. People were so in shock. He was their hero. He was this incredible ballplayer representing Puerto Rico in America, and he was also an incredibly charitable man who gave so much to people in the Caribbean. He spent his off-seasons delivering baseball equipment to children and food to people who needed it. He was a pioneer in Major League Baseball who helped open the door for other Latino players.

Nobody was more important in Puerto Rico than Roberto Clemente.

So when he died, it was just … emptiness. Like every Puerto Rican had lost a son or a brother.

We love our heroes in Puerto Rico. We hold them very close to us.

And even today, there is nobody we hold closer than Roberto Clemente. He may have died, but his soul is still alive in all Puerto Ricans.

***

As a Puerto Rican ballplayer in Major League Baseball, I feel that I have a double responsibility. I have a responsibility to represent the organization I play for, and a responsibility to represent Puerto Rico. I know that every time I go out on the field and I do well, it makes people in Puerto Rico happy. Us Puerto Rican players know that we bring joy to our island with what we do.

I’ve been able to play this game professionally for 19 years now, and I am proud of my accomplishments. But every time I do something off the field in my community that I feel is important — like sending students to college by giving scholarships at my baseball academy — that’s the biggest satisfaction. That’s why, no matter what I accomplish on the field, being presented with the Roberto Clemente Award in 2013 will always be my greatest honor. Because the award is not about what you do on the field. It’s about recognizing the positive impact you have off the field. And that’s what Roberto Clemente stood for.

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There’s a new, younger generation of Puerto Rican ballplayers in the major leagues now — guys like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez, José Berríos. And I’m happy to see what they’re doing, because they’re the future of baseball, but they’re also the future of Puerto Rico.

Some of them might get 3,000 hits like Roberto Clemente did. They might hit more homers and win more games and maybe even beat some of his records. But at the end of the day, when it comes to making an impact off the field — doing the things that really matter — Roberto Clemente will always be number one in Puerto Rico. The rest of us are playing for second place.

Leer este artículo en español, haga clic aquí.

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