Roberto Clemente Died a Legend in Baseball and in Puerto Rico: Now at Bat, Roberto Clemente Jr.
06/04/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
"He looks exactly like his father. He throws like his father, he runs like his father, he fields like his father, he bats like his father—and his father was the best ballplayer I saw in my career."
—Manny Sanguillen, former Pirates catcher
Growing up in Puerto Rico as the son of a baseball legend, Roberto Clemente Jr. had a nearly idyllic childhood. "One of the things I remember is our house in San Juan, where my father had a glove and I had a glove," Roberto, 18, recalls. "He would roll me the ball and I would run after it. When I was 5 he would begin to throw it to me and I would play catch. I was so happy. I was always getting ready for him to play with me so I could catch the ball."
The days of catch came to a sudden, tragic end. In 1972, 7-year-old Roberto Jr. lost his father, an All-Star outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clemente's chartered DC-7, loaded with medical supplies he was taking to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, went down in the ocean off San Juan. Eight months later Roberto Clemente Sr., a hero in Puerto Rico and the world of sports, was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after the five-year waiting rule had been waived. His widow, Vera, and her three young sons, after a period of intense mourning, set to work preserving his memory. They began planning Roberto Clemente Sports City, now the athletic hub of the island, in San Juan.
Today, 12 years after his father's death, Roberto Clemente Jr. is trying to make the big leagues himself. This spring, along with 125 other young hopefuls, he walked into the Philadelphia Phillies training camp in Clearwater, Fla. carrying his glove, his hopes and one of the most famous and honored names in recent sports history. "The recognition is always there," says Roberto Jr., and it is heightened by an uncanny resemblance. At 5'10", 180 lbs., he stands squarely at the plate, arms raised high in the characteristic Clemente stance. Like his father, he also runs fast—so fast that fans back in Puerto Rico have nicknamed him "Bambi." But like many young ballplayers, Roberto Jr.'s potential gets dramatically different ratings. "We saw him extensively," says Jon Neiderer, assistant director of scouting for his father's old team. "We didn't think he was a major league prospect. It may be a harsh thing to say, but he didn't come close to the abilities of his father." The Phils don't agree. "We all thought the Pirates had him in their pocket," says Jack Pastore, the Phillies assistant minor league director. "But we watched him because he had this desire." Last year, after Roberto Jr. graduated from high school, they signed him. He is now with the Sarasota Phillies in the instructional league in Florida, and he will play winter ball in Puerto Rico. His future depends on what he does in both places.
It is early but so far he is doing all right. After 14 games he is batting .400 and has six stolen bases. His manager, Ramon Aviles, likes his "good glove and good attitude." Still the comparisons remain. "He's coming up with a lot of pressure," says Elmer Valo, a Phillies' coach and former As' outfielder. "It's that name of his."
Roberto seems to have made his own peace with that. "The last few days I was in Puerto Rico I was watching films of my father," he says quietly. "I was watching every night. Every night. And he was so fine. I have never seen an arm like that, fielding like that, in all the major leagues. How can I do better than my father? I am just human. I am proud of my father. But all I can do is the best I can. I love baseball: the hitting, the fielding, the running. But I am not my father. I am me. And I must play like me."