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Sports Author Discusses Biography on Latino Baseball Great, Roberto Clemente

May 29, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, San Francisco Giants slugger
Barry Bonds made baseball history this weekend when he broke Babe Ruth’s
homerun record. But Bonds still labors under a cloud of controversy over
allegations of illegal steroid use.

Not so for another baseball star of another era, Roberto
Clemente, the Jackie Robinson of the Spanish-speaking world. Clemente joined
the Pittsburgh Pirates as a first-round draft pick in 1954. His 18-year career
there included two World Series and four National League batting championships.

Now, David Maraniss, an associate editor at the Washington
Post, has written “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last
Hero.” Maraniss sat down recently with Ray Suarez at RFK Stadium before a
Washington Nationals game.

RAY SUAREZ: David Maraniss, welcome.

DAVID MARANISS, Associate Editor, Washington Post: Thanks, Ray. Great to be at
the ballpark with you.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there are bigger stars from that era,
better-known names. What attracted you to Roberto Clemente?

DAVID MARANISS: Two things. You know, I grew up in Wisconsin with the
Milwaukee Braves of Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn. But from age 11, Clemente was
my guy, my favorite player. I thought he was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

There was some aura about Clemente, the way he looked in his
Pirates uniform, the way he looped the ball back to second base after the
catch, his incredible arm from deep right field. All of his idiosyncrasies just
appealed to me; I loved him.

And that’s not enough to write a book about. But when I
became an author I realize that Clemente represented so much more. Clemente
wasn’t the greatest by the numbers, but he was art, not science. And he was the
patron saint of Latino ball players, who now comprise 30 percent of baseball.

And he was that rare athlete who was maturing and growing in
character as he got older. So many diminish, you know, as their talents do. And
Clemente was moving the other direction and died a noble death, so I thought it
was a great story.

A misunderstood man dies

RAY SUAREZ: Remind people just how that happened?

DAVID MARANISS: Well, it was 1972. He had finished his 18thseason in the major leagues, was in Managua, Nicaragua, managing an amateur baseball team,came home back to San Juanafter that. An earthquake leveled Managua,5,000 killed, hundreds of thousands left homeless.

Clemente started organizing aid from San Juan to go back to Nicaragua,heard that the aid was being diverted at the airport by Anastasio Somoza'smilitary, and he said, "If I go, it will get to the people."

And he boarded a plane that never should have been allowedto take off. Of all the research I've done in 30 years as a journalist, gettingthe internal documents from the FAA of that plane crash, were just devastating.

It was a rickety DC-7, purchased at a part of Miami International Airport they called"Cockroach Corner," not a good sign. The owner didn't know how to flyit. He'd taken it out once and taxied into a ditch.

He got a pilot at the last minute who was about to have hislicense revoked and hadn't had any sleep. They didn't have a flight engineer. Theyrecruited a mechanic off the ramp to be the flight engineer, and it wasoverloaded by 5,000 pounds.

And the FAA was supposed to be conducting surveillance onexactly that kind of tramp airline, but it was New Year's Eve; they weren'twatching. Clemente was on a death trap trying to help the people of Nicaragua.

RAY SUAREZ: At the time of his death, I think it was widelyunderstood that he died in the cause of something noble and terrific, but maybepeople didn't know the man behind that ennobling story. Did you?

DAVID MARANISS: Not entirely, no. I always try to start fromscratch when I'm doing a book, in any case; even if I think I know something, Itry to start from the beginning.

Clemente was very much misunderstood. He had troubles withsportswriters for much of his career. He had a temper. He was incredibly proud,dignified man who was often quoted in broken English, phonetic spellings in thepaper, in his first 10 years of his career. He hated that, so that started thetension with sportswriters.

But, in his final years, he would give a speech saying: Ifyou can help others and fail to do so, you're wasting your time on this Earth. Howmany actually say something like that? He didn't have a speechwriter, and helived it. And that's what he was living out when he died.

A baseball hero for many

RAY SUAREZ: Why call him baseball's last hero? Is it becauseof the current troubles and questions that hang over some of the great stars ofthe game?

DAVID MARANISS: That might be an undercurrent. And, to behonest, I have some qualms about using the word "hero." I think it'sa cliche, and particularly when it applies to sports. You know, you can have anidol or a favorite player, but is that a hero?

But the classic definition of a hero is someone who givestheir life in the service of others, and that's exactly what Roberto Clementedid.

RAY SUAREZ: It was interesting to read of the deepdissatisfaction of a man who had splendid gifts, was gorgeous physically,admired and loved in his homeland, and yet there was this naggingdissatisfaction to him.

DAVID MARANISS: Well, he had what I call -- he's kind oflike Jackie Robinson, a beautiful fury. It was a nagging, but he transferredmost of it onto the ball field. And that was the fury that he played with andthat surrounded him before and after games.

Part of it was being in Pittsburgh. He felt that if he'd been in New York where he wantedto play - he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a bonus, but they didn't keephim. Had he been in New York, L.A.or Chicago, hewould have been better recognized.

If he hadn't had the language problems, of no sportswritersknowing Spanish, him speaking English but being misquoted, that led to somemisunderstandings. So Clemente burned with pride that he was better than peoplerealized and that he wanted that recognition.

RAY SUAREZ: And it made you, as you're reading it, think ofwhat might have been. I mean, today there's a Spanish-speaking sportswriterscorps, Spanish-language sports networks, entire big markets that would havegone gaga for this man.

DAVID MARANISS: Well, Clemente, even now, I think is thepatron saint of Latino baseball. All of the Latino players of today know thisClemente story. But if he were playing today, he would be enormous; you'reabsolutely right.

He had everything. You know, he was intelligent. He was agraceful player. There was this magic to him, and the market is there now. Andthe rise of Latinos in American life was made for Clemente, but he's gone.

Proud to be Puerto Rican

RAY SUAREZ: For all that mismatch in the '50s and '60s,though, Pittsburghin your story did come to love him?

DAVID MARANISS: Yes. You know, I once did a book on VinceLombardi. And if you believed everybody who said it, two million people were atthe Ice Bowl. Where similarly, you know, everybody in Pittsburgh now loves Clemente.

They didn't all love him then. But the fans, the real fansdid. They were the sanctuary for Clemente.

He was, 99 percent of the time, incredibly gracious withkids, with old people, with minorities, with poor people, with anybody who hesaw as vulnerable, like he was. He was kind of an outsider, a black Latino inthe quintessential blue-collar steel town. And he won them over by just beingwhat he was.

RAY SUAREZ: And what he was, was a strongly self-identifiedPuerto Rican at a time when Puerto Ricans were still strangers to manyAmericans.

DAVID MARANISS: That's true. I think the most powerfulmoment in Clemente's career was after the 1971 World Series.

He had struggled for 17 seasons to get recognition, playedbrilliantly in that series when they beat the Orioles four games to three. Hebatted .414, was great in the field, dominated everything, finally got thenational spotlight, was the MVP. The cameras and microphones were on him afterthe last game.

And before he was interviewed, he said, "Before Ianswer any questions, I'd like to give blessings to my parents back home in Puerto Rico in Spanish." And then he said, "Onthe greatest day of my life," in Spanish, "I want to ask for myparents blessings and give blessings to my brothers and to my sons."

Very simple statement. I can't tell you how many hundreds ofPuerto Ricans have come to me and said, "My dad was listening to that andstarted crying," because of the strong self-identity that Clemente had. Hewas proud of who he was and where he was from.

Carrying on his legacy

RAY SUAREZ: And today his dream of teaching kids to playball on the island has come true, hasn't it?

DAVID MARANISS: Not as much as he would have hoped. There isa sports city. His son, Luis, is now trying to revive it to what it would havebeen, had Clemente lived. Puerto Rico,ironically, is an urban place that's moved a little more toward basketball thanbaseball. You know, Venezuelaand Dominican Republicare now the big baseball places, but Clemente's vision is very powerful andlives on.

RAY SUAREZ: "Clemente: The Passion and Grace ofBaseball's Last Hero," David Maraniss, thank you.

DAVID MARANISS: Thank you, Ray.