Friday, January 1, 2016

Roberto Clemente: Grace in the Flesh of the Moment

New Year's Day.

It means many things, but to a group of people from my generation who happened to be sports-crazy kids growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or Puerto Rico, this day will forever be associated with El Magnifico, "the Great One," Roberto Clemente.

We had witnessed his passion and courage on the baseball field, and it was clear even to a ten year old boy like me that this was something more than just playing a game for Roberto Clemente. This was a way of living life, of going out into the day and putting forth everything, risking everything for the possibility of finding beauty and grace in the flesh of the moment.

January 1, 1973 is as clear in my mind as yesterday. My Dad was doing something (shaving?) in the bathroom with the door open, and he had turned on his transistor radio.

It was a news report. An urgent news report. And we couldn't believe what we were hearing. We just couldn't believe it....

Roberto Clemente and a plane loaded with relief supplies for earthquake-stricken Nicaragua had disappeared over the ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico.

The Coast Guard.... Search parties, divers.... What were they looking for? Was there still hope? Maybe he survived and swam to a little island somewhere!

I kept hoping, we all kept hoping... for awhile.

But then reality dawned upon us.

Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash, on a mission of mercy to people in desperate need. It was clear to us even then that he had taken the ultimate risk, that he had offered his life on that day.

We mourned the loss of him. At the same time, the whole thing was somehow "not surprising." We watched Roberto Clemente "offer his life" over and over, in every at-bat, every time he ran the bases, and in right field... Oh yes!--the man marshaled his entire body into a cannon and threw bullets to third base and home plate. He was always pouring himself out: the way he played baseball gave the impression of a man with a singular passion, a very specific destiny that was worth dying for.

I didn't have these words when I was ten years old, but it is that ten-year-old who lives in me today who is speaking from an indelible memory.

As the years went by I learned the details of the event. The earthquake of December 23, 1972 in Nicaragua was a humanitarian catastrophe of epic scale. It was comparable to what happened in Haiti in 2010. We all remember how difficult the Haitian relief effort was, especially in the first days. And in 1972 coordinated humanitarian aid for natural disasters in third world countries was in its pioneer days.

There wasn't much of a "script" to follow (there still isn't, really). But Clemente, who has just returned from a month of coaching a youth sports camp in Nicaragua, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He was one of the most well known and well respected figures in the Caribbean and Central America. He summoned his fellow Puerto Ricans to give whatever resources they could. Food and medical supplies were desperately needed.

But Nicaragua's government and military were corrupt, and were looting the supply planes that came into the country. Clemente had no troops to accompany and secure his relief effort. He had only one "political" asset on hand that could command the respect of everyone and ensure the safe delivery of needed supplies: himself. In the midst of such an emergency, El Magnifico thought his own stature in the region would be sufficient to put local government looters to shame and focus the work of everyone on the ground.

In any case, he thought it was worth the risk.

There has been much discussion about the faulty aircraft, its excessive load, and its unqualified crew. It appears that Clemente himself was aware of the dangers, as he refused the offers of several friends who wanted to accompany him on the night of January 31, 1972. For the chance of helping thousands of people, he took the risk only for himself.

Roberto Clemente often acknowledged that God holds the life and death of every person in His hands. It was his simple trust in God that gave him strength to take risks--not out of recklessness but in the service of building up the good. He knew that "greatness" is nothing if it does not spend itself in service and fulfill itself by being given away. Clemente was a flawed man, certainly, but he was a man of faith, and in the end he really was not only a "sports hero," but a hero pure and simple, a man who showed us the greatness of the human heart.

All these things I learned later.

But I can still feel the sorrow I felt as a child on New Year's Day. It is a sorrow mixed with awe and something like gratitude. Roberto Clemente defined an aspiration in me that still remains (though I nearly always fall short): the desire to be courageous in responding to the needs of the moment, to risk everything to find beauty and grace in the flesh of the moment.

Roberto Clemente, acknowledging cheers after his 3,000th (and last) hit, Sept 30, 1972. Rest in peace, brother. And thank you.