A League of His Own

updated 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE LEGACY WAS DAUNTING: DURING HIS 18 seasons as the Pittsburgh Pirates' right fielder with the shotgun arm, the late Roberto Clemente racked up 3,000 hits, 12 Gold Glove fielding awards and, ultimately, a well-deserved niche in baseball's Hall of Fame.

That didn't stop Roberto Jr., the oldest of his three sons, from believing he could be just as good as his dad. As a child he slept in his Little League uniform, dreaming of baseball glory, and after high school he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. But in three seasons as a minor-leaguer, he reminded no one of his father, and when he suffered a career-ending back injury' in 1990, Roberto Jr. was devastated. "I went back to Puerto Rico, back to my mother's house in San Juan, and I did not leave my room for three weeks," he says. "All I did was cry."

But Roberto Clemente, who died in a 1972 plane crash while on his way to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, was known as much for his heart as for his talent, and these days it is his father's humanitarian legacy that Roberto Jr. is trying to fulfill—with decidedly more success. Last September, the younger Clemente launched the Roberto Clemente Foundation, a nonprofit organization, to bring baseball—and a brighter future—to Pittsburgh's inner-city kids. "I think I've finally come to terms with my last name and with who I am," says Roberto Jr., 28. "The program is something I need to do for myself."

It is changing the lives of some of Pittsburgh's neediest kids as well. In its first season, Clemente's foundation works closely with the city of Pittsburgh, major-league baseball's Reviving Baseball in the Inner City (RBI) program and the Pirates and has moved more than 100 teenage boys off the streets and onto the ball-field. Eventually, Clemente would like to add a tutoring program and build an indoor stadium so the kids could play sports year-round. "I want to grab them and help turn them into people who can go places and learn about the world and accomplish things," he says. He knows it won't be easy. When Clemente visited Pittsburgh's tough Northside neighborhood recently, a gang member threatened him with a gun. "I barely got out of there alive," says Clemente. "And then there was a shooting as I was leaving, right in front of me. So I got a real hard look at the kind of devastation we're up against."

Clemente—who was 6 when his father died—says his own lonely childhood has helped him identify with the boys. "I grew up without a father, so I can relate to these inner-city kids, because most of them have only a single parent," he says. "There were no men around, no one to say, 'Let's sit down and have a man-to-man talk.' That was very hard."

Even after his own baseball dreams shattered, Roberto Jr. understood the value of athletics. When, after his injury, he returned to his native San Juan, he began dropping by the Sports City complex his mother had begun in downtown Puerto Rico to honor her husband's dream of helping children through baseball. (Brother Enrique, 25, works with his mother at the complex; Luis, 27, is an airline executive in Miami.) Before long, he was drafted to coach a team of streetwise 16-to-18-year-olds. "I had car thieves on that team and drug dealers and hit men," he says with a chuckle. "During our first exhibition game, a fight broke out, and my kids all went to their cars and came back with guns! I'm standing there and I'm asking, 'Are these my kids?' "

Eventually, Clemente talked the boys out of carrying their weapons. In the process he found himself falling in love with coaching. "That was the turning point for me," he says. "I realized this is my mission in life, coaching and helping these kids."

When he brought two teams from San Juan to St. Louis last August for RBI's World Series and realized that Pittsburgh—the site of his father's greatest exploits—had no RBI program, he knew where he would pursue that calling. Within weeks he and Zulma, 26, his wife of two years (who is expecting their first child in July), had moved to Pittsburgh and begun setting up the foundation. "This is my mission now: to try and continue Papi's dream," says Roberto. His mother, for one, is sure he will succeed. "He has ability," says Vera Clemente, 51, who remains in San Juan. "And he has baseball in his blood."

CYNTHIA SANZ
TOM NUGENT in Pittsburgh

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