By Tom Smith
December 29, 2012
Monday, December 31, 2012
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Monday, December 31, 2012Losing A Hero
By Alfredo R. Berrios
|Roberto Clemente races down the first-base line against the Orioles during the 1971 World Series.|
At first heard as a rumor, then sadly confirmed, Puerto Rican baseball star Roberto Clemente Walker had died in a plane crash while en route to deliver aid to the victims of a devastating earthquake that had struck Nicaragua weeks before. He was 38.
It was unbelievable. Together with Orlando "Peruchin" Cepeda, Clemente was the island's main star in major league baseball. Among his accomplishments, the still-active player had won four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, two World Series titles and a National League MVP award, plus he registered a .317 lifetime batting average.
Only months before, in September, Clemente got his 3,000th major league hit, an almost unattainable milestone at that time. In October, he had managed the Puerto Rican team at the Amateur World Series held in Managua. Afterward, he fulfilled his dream of offering free baseball clinics to children throughout Puerto Rico.
Then suddenly, he lost his life just hours before the end of the year that perhaps gave him the most exposure in baseball and in his own homeland.
"In '54, I met Clemente for the first time when he debuted with the Triple-A International League team from Montreal, the Royals, at the stadium in Montreal," remembered Martinez, who was connected to the player for almost the rest of his life. "Here [in Puerto Rico], I had the opportunity to spend time with Roberto during every moment of his existence.
"We were no longer friends; a brotherhood was formed."
|September 30, 1972: Roberto Clemente accepts his due after his 3,000th hit.|
Clemente had a strange way of playing baseball. He liked to send pitches towards the right side even though he was a right-handed hitter. His style of running the bases, shaking his entire body wildly, was different, something I gathered from the limited amount of baseball I had seen. When the opposing team's bat cracked, he ran automatically to the area to which the ball was headed and caught it, throwing it back to the diamond almost effortlessly without it bouncing on the field.
It surprised me how he got an opponent out at the plate with a throw from deep in center field to home without bouncing the ball -- a perfect throw.
I confess that I don't remember what team won on that winter night in the '60s, but my loyalties remained with the San Juan team and with Clemente. From that night onward, I would place the radio earpiece in my ear and listen to every game he played, keeping a rough score on an improvised graph paper without knowing that I was keeping my first box scores.
Later in my life, I saw Clemente do things I believed to be impossible and which very few baseball players have matched.
"Of the many, many people I have met in this dynamic radio and television line of work, I haven't met anybody with such incredible qualities of humanism and discipline, of being a good father, a good son. Roberto was an exemplary human being," said the broadcast journalist, who narrated dozens of Clemente's games on radio and TV, including his 3,000th hit, a double off New York Mets left-handed pitcher Jon Matlack on Sept. 30, 1972.
As if acting on a premonition, Clemente did many things that year, on a personal level and on the field. Martinez was a participant, both as a sports journalist and also as a promoter in several of the activities.
"That year, 1972, he did it all. He signed on as a representative with Eastern Airlines, a project that entailed visiting throughout the United States, different places in Latin America and different places of scarce economic resources. He was going to take on a production to be narrated by Jose Ferrer and Orson Welles," explained Martinez. He recalled that part of the project included filming various children in Pittsburgh, where Clemente played almost his entire career in the majors, and a tribute to the Pirates' play-by-play announcer back then, Bob Prince.
During that activity, Martinez convinced Clemente to manage Puerto Rico's amateur baseball team that traveled to Nicaragua, a key event in his story.
|Clemente's remarkable hitting stroke in action.|
Clemente did not show much as a mentor even though he had several of the Pirates' top players under his command that year. If memory serves me correctly, San Juan did not make the playoffs, double the pain for the fan who saw the failure of his hero from the dugout.
I recall that Clemente was not a fan of granting interviews, something that was not well-received by Puerto Rican journalists of the time and did not win him many friends. As for me, I never could get his autograph, since he stayed away from fans during warm-ups, which was very discouraging in my development as a youth.
"I traveled from San Juan to Miami, and in Miami, I ran into Clemente, who was headed to Nicaragua," said Martinez-Rousset, 94, who sat next to him on the plane that took them to their Central American destination. "We talked the entire trip about his adventures and his injuries. He said that he had real injuries, and unbeknownst to everyone, he continued playing."
The veteran sports journalist, with whom I worked at several newspapers in his native Puerto Rico as sports editor and in general news, recalled that Clemente was a very complex person.
"Clemente was not an overly friendly person. He had his detractors. From what I was told, at Hiram Bithorn [Stadium] in San Juan, some people would sit there just to insult him," Martinez-Rousset said.
As he inched closer to the legendary milestone, all Pirates games in which Clemente participated were aired. Clemente was the first Hispanic player to break that barrier, and I had the opportunity to enjoy it live just days before the end of the season and right as they were preparing to end the transmissions, since they were costly and ineffective.
"He made it, completely clean, just like he wanted it," Ramirez described when Clemente connected the double that carried him to immortality against Matlack, a lefty who, ironically, had pitched in Puerto Rico for Clemente's Senadores de San Juan.
|Clemente presents gifts to a fan at a charity exhibition game in May, 1972.|
Martinez said that he also lived with Clemente's moments of humanism in Nicaragua, among them seeing to the care of a legless boy of limited resources. The boy's parents could not provide a prosthetic leg because it was something said to not among the priorities of Nicaragua's then-dictator, Anastasio Somoza.
"That was one of the many things he [Clemente] did, where he did not take photographers or cameramen, nor did he tell anyone. He enjoyed it alone. He planned with the woman to take her to the United States and didn't get to see it through. In the stadium that would later be named after him, he met a woman who was eight months pregnant who asked him to take her to Puerto Rico so that her son would be born in Puerto Rico, and Roberto said yes to her," Martinez continued.
The boy who had lost his leg died during the Dec. 23 earthquake, but Clemente never found out.
That Christmas, like all Christmases in Puerto Rico, was a time for family celebration and parties galore. Because I was only 14, I barely celebrated outside the family circle. One of the news stories that cast a pall over that celebration was the devastating earthquake in Nicaragua, in which thousands were left homeless, hundreds died and with which all Puerto Ricans became involved, mostly because of the campaign that Clemente prepared along with various civic leaders and popular artists.
Television host Luis Vigoreaux was one of these artists; his weekend programs dominated television ratings in Puerto Rico. Thanks to his involvement with Vigoreaux, and with folk singer Ruth Fernandez, Clemente was able to call upon the generosity of the Puerto Rican people and take aid to Nicaragua. The player argued that his proximity to Nicaraguan people compelled him to cooperate in this manner. Two aid supply collection centers were set up at Hiram Bithorn Stadium and at the Plaza Las Americas shopping mall. Over the first few days, two planes loaded with medications, clothes and food were sent to the Central American nation.
The generosity had led to being able to load a third plane, on which Clemente offered to travel. Many urban legends were born of that decision. It was said that Vigoreaux and Fernandez would accompany Clemente in his humanitarian deed. The player said it was his obligation to go with the cargo in order to prevent Nicaraguan soldiers from stealing the supplies, which had been alleged regarding prior relief shipments. Other versions indicated that the player had unrelated interests in taking the flight to a town close to the capital, Managua, mainly to visit someone there.
"We loaded the cargo. First, the medications and medical equipment, then the clothes, and finally, the food," Munoz, who is Martinez-Rousset's son, remembered. "When we were leaving -- it was Dec. 31, we were all headed home to celebrate -- Clemente came and ordered us to empty the plane because the medicines had to come out first, then the food and finally the clothes. The plane had been loaded backward."
At that moment, Munoz did not know that the plane was overloaded due to the weight of several dentist's chairs that were donated, plus the tons of medications and clothes. What he did notice was that the aircraft, a DC-7 propeller plane, was leaking oil.
"The plane was overloaded," said Munoz, 56, who was a sports journalist for many years. "Clemente was told not to travel, to switch it to a different day."
In fact, Vigoreaux himself told Clemente not to travel that night, but nothing changed his mind.
"I heard Vigoreaux say it," said Benny Agosto, a longtime baseball man who has been associated with the Puerto Rican Winter League for more than 40 years and who knew Clemente.
My family welcomed every year at the homes of different relatives, where we would go share, celebrate and watch the television in anticipation of the arrival of the new year. One of the most awaited moments was the reciting of poem called "Bohemian's Toast," by Guillermo Aguirre Fierro, a tradition I practice to this today. It was always recited moments after the arrival of the new year, after which we would go back to our home.
At approximately 10 p.m., the countdown transmission was interrupted.
"We had gone to visit several neighbors, which was customary in the days leading up to the new year. When we got home, the phone rang. It was my son Edmundo, who got out of a taxi and the driver told him there was a rumor that Clemente had died when his plane fell on the coast across from the airport", Martinez-Rousset described.
At that time, he asked his son to return to the airport (then called the Isla Verde Airport) to find out more details. Martinez-Rousset called the director of the AP in Puerto Rico, American George Arfeld, who mobilized all his editors and journalists.
"He told me, let's go to the office," Martinez-Rousset recalled. "I sent my son to speak with my daughter's husband, who was the on-duty supervisor at the Puerto Rico Ports Authority at the airport, to try to find out more information for me ... and that was how we confirmed that the plane had crashed."
Former major league catcher Manny Sanguillen, then was playing for the Senadores in Puerto Rico, tried to see Clemente before the plane took off, not to convince him not to go, since he was unaware that he was going to fly to Nicaragua, but rather as a response to an invitation to talk from someone he considered his friend and mentor.
"Luis Mayoral [sports journalist and a friend of Clemente] came and knocked on my door. He said to me: 'Do you know that Clemente's plane crashed?' I went crazy ... and we never communicated. That always affects me. That's why I don't like talking about that day," Sanguillen told Puerto Rico news daily, Primera Hora.
"The plane took off and fell immediately to the ocean on the coast across from the Cangrejos Yacht Club in the Isla Verde area. There are no survivors," the news anchor narrated.
The New Year's Eve party on television never came back on the air. The countdown was stopped. The "Bohemian's Toast" was never heard. The year 1973 had kicked off unnoticed, and Puerto Rico had lost its favorite son.
Paul Guggenheimer is host of Essential Pittsburgh on 90.5 WESA, the NPR affiliate in Pittsburgh.
By Mike Bires firstname.lastname@example.org | Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2012 8:39 pm
Beaver County Times
PITTSBURGH -- Let the record show that the Steelers’ final touchdown of a madcap season was scored by Plaxico Burress.
How bizarre is that?
There was Plax, taking a couple bows in the end zone with 3:20 left to play after clinching a win that allowed the Steelers to finish a ho-hum 8-8.
The whole Burress dilemma was one of many mysteries in a season of hope that ended in failure.
After re-acquiring Burress on Nov. 20, the Steelers never knew quite what to do with him. It wasn’t until the season finale, Sunday's 24-10 win over the Browns, that coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally put him to good use.
In a game in which no Steelers’ receiver was targeted more than three times or caught more than two passes, Burress proved that at age 35 he could still make significant plays.
He caught two passes, each for 12 yards. He also accounted for 12 penalty yards by drawing a pass interference flag against Cleveland star cornerback Joe Haden.
The touchdown was classic Burress, a high ball from Ben Roethlisberger thrown where only a big man could get it.
It was a classic red zone mismatch: Burress, at 6-foot-5, matched up man-to-man against the 5-11 Haden.
Take a bow, Plax.
“It was nice, it was fun,” Roethlisberger said of his first TD pass to Burress since 2004. “He’s got a big body down there and he made a great catch.”
So the question begs to be asked: Where was Burress last week when the Steelers needed to beat the Bengals?
Why did Tomlin choose not to even dress him in a game the Steelers needed to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive?
Instead, Tomlin dressed five running backs: Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Rainey and Baron Batch.
Are you kidding?
In a game they really had to win, the Steelers dressed Baron Batch instead of Burress, a former first-round draft pick who caught a winning TD for the Giants in the Super Bowl a few years ago.
Batch had zero carries and zero catches in last week's 13-10 loss before breaking his arm covering a kickoff late in the first half.
Even dressing Rainey over Burress was a mistake. Granted, Rainey returns kickoffs but it’s not that he’s a game-breaking specialist. In a game the Steelers had to win, Emmanuel Sanders could have returned kickoffs. As it turns out, Rainey didn’t have any carries or any receptions and only returned two kickoffs for 33 and 34 yards.
What a waste of manpower.
Ever since returning to Pittsburgh, Burress was used sparingly. Out of 195 offensive snaps in his first three games, he was on the field for only 19 of them. He didn’t dress in the loss in Dallas. He didn’t dress in the home loss to the Bengals.
In the locker room after Sunday’ win over the Browns, Burress chose not to criticize the coaches for the way he’s been used.
“You know, all I can do is prepare,” he said.
But Burress looked good enough against the Browns that Roethlisberger envisioned him back in a Steelers uniform next year.
“He has plenty of game left,” Roethlisberger said.
Too bad the Steelers didn’t put Burress to work sooner. Like last week.
By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times Sports Correspondent | Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2012 8:18 pm
Ex-Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason criticized Ben Roethlisberger.
That’s like France criticizing Germany for lack of military acumen. Even if a valid point gets made, the track records simply can’t be ignored.
Esiason labeled Roethlisberger a “drama queen” because of his reputation, deserved or not, for embellishing injuries.
What’s that matter as long as Roethlisberger plays and produces?
There’s no denying it was a difficult year for the Steelers’ QB. A rough finish despite three touchdown passes in Sunday's meaningless home victory against Cleveland.
A potential MVP season collapsed because of injury. Roethlisberger missed three games and wasn’t the same when he returned, donning goat’s horns for losses to Dallas and Cincinnati, the latter destroying the Steelers’ playoff hopes.
Criticism of Roethlisberger is warranted. He’d be the first to agree. Despite solid personal stats, 8-8 doesn’t lie. Roethlisberger’s two-minute touch abandoned him.
But when detractors scorn Roethlisberger, he doesn’t get the same respect accorded others of his accomplishment level. If Tom Brady has been criticized with the same venom Roethlisberger too often absorbs, I haven’t heard about it.
Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl winner. He is a three-time Super Bowl participant. He engineered a two-minute drill to win Super Bowl XLIII. Brady has won three Super Bowls, but lost two. Nobody’s perfect.
Critics cite supposed imperfections in Roethlisberger’s style. He needs to tweak his game, we’re told. Steelers president Art Rooney II drew upon his vast playing and coaching experience to make that pronouncement.
What, exactly, does Roethlisberger need to tweak? This year, he got rid of the ball quicker. He threw the ball away more. He took shorter drops.
The result: Roethlisberger still got hurt, and the Steelers went 8-8.
Maybe Roethlisberger’s game was fine just the way it was. No tweak needed.
The Steelers are the only team in the NFL that would dumb down a top five quarterback. Yinzer Nation is the only fan base stupid enough to accept it.
Let’s examine the reason for that: The Steelers, and Steelers fans, have never really forgiven Roethlisberger for the transgressions alleged in Georgia and Nevada.
Evidence was flimsy. No charges were filed. But franchise-wise and fan-wise, the attitude toward Roethlisberger has never been the same. Ownership doesn’t want Roethlisberger (or anyone) to be bigger than the logo or the family. Never did. Fans believe Roethlisberger soiled the team’s squeaky-clean image.
That’s insanity, of course. James Harrison got convicted of domestic abuse, and he’s a Heinz Field hero. Alameda Ta’amu put bystanders and police at risk by driving drunk through Pittsburgh’s South Side, but he’s still on the roster. The Steelers haven’t been holier than thou since Ernie Holmes shot at a police helicopter in 1973, yet played five more seasons in Pittsburgh.
Thirteen men started at QB for the Steelers between their fourth and fifth Super Bowl wins. If you want to hate quarterbacks, hate those quarterbacks.
During his anti-Ben rant, Esiason listed the NFL’s top four QBs (Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees), which certainly delivers a message via Roethlisberger’s omission. Esiason also said that Roethlisberger “has to be a man,” and “not just on Sunday.”
What does that mean? I honestly have no clue.
Esiason seemed most annoyed by Roethlisberger pronouncing that his broken ribs threatened his aorta and thus his life, saying that “everybody across the NFL rolled his eyes.” The Steelers’ doctors didn’t roll their eyes, however. But if Todd Haley can coach football without having played it, I suppose Esiason can pretend to be a physician despite lack of a medical degree. Or a Super Bowl ring.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
Sunday, December 30, 2012
By Jorge L. Ortiz
December 30, 2012
December 30, 2012
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Forty years ago Monday, I was a baseball-obsessed 11-year-old attending a New Year's Eve party near my parents' house when rumors spread that one of this island's biggest stars had perished in a plane crash.
At first word was Orlando Cepeda was the victim, and that would have been a huge loss because the 1967 National League MVP was a popular figure and a future Hall of Famer.
But when it was confirmed that favorite son Roberto Clemente was the one who'd died, an indescribable grief enveloped nearly everybody in Puerto Rico.
Three months before, we had been riveted by Clemente's pursuit of his 3,000th hit, a feat he accomplished on the last weekend of the 1972 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He became the 11th player and first Latino to reach the coveted mark, and the residents of this U.S. territory swelled with pride.
Now the source of such joy was gone at age 38, his body never to be found in the Atlantic Ocean.
Throngs rushed to the coastal area near the airport from which the plane had taken off, overloaded with relief supplies Clemente wanted to make sure reached the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.
"We headed out to the beach closest to the crash area and it was packed with people. It was devastating news for everybody,'' says former major league pitcher Jose Santiago, a close friend of Clemente. "People were going, 'Are you sure he boarded the plane? Maybe he didn't.' Or claiming, 'Oh, he's got to be alive.' Some would say, 'He's clinging to a rock in one of those little islands out there.' "
In the days that followed, as Clemente's death was accepted as reality, a photo of his 7-year-old son Roberto Jr. kissing a poster with his father's picture became as heart-wrenching and iconic in Puerto Rico as the image of JFK Jr. saluting his father's coffin was in the U.S.
On this latest trip home for the holidays, I have found the usual tributes to Puerto Rico's first Hall of Famer. His name is attached to an arena, a stadium in his native municipality of Carolina and an avenue, as well as this year's winter league baseball tournament.
And yet, while the 40th anniversary of Clemente's 3,000th hit was celebrated with a ceremony in Pittsburgh's PNC Park, the most noteworthy commemoration of his passing is a musical about his life that played in a Santurce, P.R., theater earlier this month.
Baseball is no longer the dominant sport here, with the winter league constantly struggling to draw fans and stay afloat. Clemente's dream of a "sports city'' where youngsters could hone their skills was eventually fulfilled, paving the way for several future pros, but now the facilities are abandoned and in disrepair.
His family prefers the focus be on the way he lived, not how he died. And many Puerto Ricans have moved on.
The island has produced other luminaries, including a third baseball Hall of Famer in Roberto Alomar and a likely future one in Ivan Rodriguez, boxing champions such as Felix Trinidad and Wilfredo Gomez, singer Ricky Martin, Emmy-winning actor Raul Julia and former surgeon general Antonia Novello. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, is embraced in this commonwealth as one of its own.
Still, none are revered as deeply as Clemente, whose martyr-like death elevated his stature to near sainthood.
"The country was completely paralyzed by the news,'' recalls Hector Lopez, a childhood friend who remained tight with Clemente. "The holiday season ended. People took down their Christmas trees and went into a national mourning.''
Though he remembers Clemente fondly, Lopez is open about his foibles, saying his friend was tight with money, was paid for conducting youth clinics and planned to charge for use of the sports city, which he envisioned as an athletic academy.
Regardless, four decades after he vanished, Clemente remains the rare elite athlete whose humanitarian deeds are remembered with as much admiration as his accomplishments as a player, which included two World Series titles, four batting crowns, 12 Gold Glove Awards and MVP awards in a regular season and a World Series.
Houston Astros prospect Carlos Correa, the first Puerto Rican to be taken No. 1 overall in the draft, points to Clemente's social activism.
"He was a star but stayed humble, and he was good on and off the field,'' says Correa, 18. "He's a great example for all Puerto Rican players and will continue to be.''
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, probably the top player among a diminishing Puerto Rican contingent in the majors, has taken up the cause of abused and disadvantaged kids through his foundation. Molina says the chance to live up to Clemente's legacy was a motivating factor.
"He did a lot of things off the field to help people, and he had a lot less (money) than we do these days,'' Molina says. "If he did it, why shouldn't we help others?''
Troubled by the prejudice he experienced in the U.S. as a dark-skinned Latino – which he felt put him two strikes behind in American society – Clemente spoke out against discrimination and was relentless in the pursuit of causes he believed in.
His impact extended through Latin America, where he was hailed as the Latino Jackie Robinson. Since 1973, Major League Baseball has handed out a Roberto Clemente Award to the player who embodies his combination of on-field excellence and community involvement.
Orlando Merced, who played the first seven of his 13 major-league seasons for the Pirates, grew up across from Clemente's house, befriended his three sons and attended school with them. Merced sprung from the sports city and, as so many others here, considers Clemente his hero.
"Roberto Clemente created the dream for many of us to become professional players and to reach the major leagues,'' Merced says. "He opened the eyes of the American teams to the talent that was here.''
The talent has diminished, and Clemente's on-field legacy has receded in the Puerto Rican consciousness. His dignity and devotion to those less fortunate, however, continue to resonate.
As an 11-year-old, my response to losing Clemente was to put together an album of photos clipped from newspaper stories. Since then I've read books and numerous stories about him and also watched documentaries of his life.
I didn't think I would learn much more about Clemente on this visit, and yet a few days ago my father, now a retired physician, told me of the time in the late 1960s when the perennial All-Star came to his office.
Seeking treatment for the back trouble that dogged him for much of his career, Clemente sat among the other patients and patiently waited his turn. It was an ordinary gesture by an extraordinary man, one that made his legend just a bit bigger in my eyes.