Roberto Clemente: The day the game died

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Don McLean’s “American Pie” is a musical classic that tells the tale of the day music died when singer Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash. For me, December 31, 1972 is the day baseball died because this is the day my favorite player, Roberto Clemente, died, also from a plane crash.

Today, we are all too frequently reminded of what is wrong in professional athletics. Stories abound of player wrong doings and arrests making it difficult to look up to athletes as role models. As a kid growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, this was not the case and I came to admire Roberto Clemente, the right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As I think back, I am not exactly sure why I liked him more than the other greats of the game at the time. I grew up outside of San Francisco, but was never a big fan of Willie Mays or others on the Giants. I suppose I liked Clemente because of his somewhat awkward style of play, not unlike the way I played ball as a kid. He always ran hard, but never gracefully. He swung at pitches outside the strike zone and could hit to all fields rather than wait for the perfect pitch. He played the less glamorous position of right field while possessing a howitzer for an arm. And he quietly went about his business while earning one MVP award, 15 All Star Game appearances, four batting titles, and 12 Gold Gloves for fielding excellence. He was a complete player who played every game like it might be his last and in his final at bat, he hit his three thousandth hit.

In December of 1972, Nicaragua was devastated by an earthquake just three weeks after Roberto had visited the country. After the quake, he led the effort to collect much needed aid for the victims only to become frustrated when the first three plane loads were stolen by rebels. Clemente decided to escort the fourth plane hoping he could convince rebels to allow the aid to reach victims. He never made it. The plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after take off and Roberto’s body was never found.

I was watching the Rose Bowl game the following day when just before half time, one of the announcers told viewers of Roberto’s death. When I then read about it at the bottom of the television screen, it conformed what I did not want to believe at first. I quietly got up and walked back to my bedroom and began to cry. I didn’t know what else to do.

Following his death, I found it difficult to really admire athletes and have a favorite. I still loved sports but I did not place players on a pedestal like I used to, even though I would not graduate from high school until 1977. By the early 1980’s, I pretty much quit following baseball. Players had gone on strike and I now thought they cared more about their bank account than anything else. A few years later, drug problems would begin to dominate sports and I now see professional sports as nothing more than entertainment that seems to thrive in a constant state of controversy.

Jason Brown (YouTube)
Jason Brown

It’s too bad because there are still good guys out there in athletics who do not get the attention they deserve. Nowadays, athletes are more apt to write a check to a cause and then show up for a well choreographed photo op than to actually give back to the less fortunate.

Someone worthy of praise today is Jason Brown, the 29-year old former center for the St. Louis Rams. While his former teammates have grabbed headlines for their Michael Brown Jr. “Hand Up, Don’t Shoot” pose, Jason decided to retire even though he was leaving $12.5 million dollars in money if he played through the remainder of his contract. He did so in order to become a farmer who grows food with the sole intent to donate his crops to food pantries for the homeless. Even though he still had another five to seven years of playing days ahead of him, and probably another $50 million dollars in earnings, Jason made a choice that deserves far more attention than what we give to screw ups like Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice.

This New Year’s Eve will mark 42 years since the tragic death of Roberto Clemente. If he were still alive, he would not be one of those former athletes living off the memory of what he accomplished on the field of play. Instead, he would judge himself by what he accomplished off it. He would also be proud of Jason Brown, and others like him. We should all honor the memory of Roberto Clemente by going out of our way to recognize the work of the Jerome Browns of professional sports. Doing so will go a long ways to make being a fan of athletes worth it again.