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ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR. : Newest Padre Isn't Trying to Be Another Baseball Legend, He's Just Trying to Do the Legend Proud

March 07, 1986|STEVE DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

YUMA, Ariz. — Every time Roberto Clemente Jr. looks at the pictures, he laughs.

There he was, in diapers no less, swinging a baseball bat and sliding into imaginary bases.

And here he is, a Padre minor leaguer.

The story of his father is well-documented. Roberto Clemente Sr. was a Hall of Fame outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had 3,000 career hits, but it was not just statistics that made him special, especially to the people of Puerto Rico. He died Dec. 31, 1972, near San Juan Airport in Puerto Rico in a crash of a cargo plane that had $150,000 in relief supplies for victims of the earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua.

Roberto Jr. was 6 years old when his father died. Now 20, Robert Jr. is playing baseball, because that is what would have made his father proud.

At 18, Roberto Jr. was signed by Philadelphia out of high school in Puerto Rico. An outfielder, he batted .167 and .186 in two minor league seasons and was released by the Phillies after last season.

Sandy Alomar, a first-year Padre coach, saw Roberto Jr. play in a Puerto Rican winter league game during the off-season. His advice to the Padres: Sign the kid.

"He runs like his father and he goes after the ball like his father," Alomar said. "The funny thing is, his father was released once after he signed. His father was a late-bloomer. I'm looking for him to be a late-bloomer, too. But his father never felt the pressure he's feeling now."

Pressure has long been Roberto JR.'s mIddlE naMe. From childhood, everybody has expected him to be another, well, Roberto Clemente.

Perhaps the most pressure Roberto Jr. experienced was in his first spring training with the Phillies in 1984.

"My first year with the Phillies, the media was over me all the time in spring training," he said. "It was hard, but I got used to it. I just put it into the back of my mind."

However, Roberto Jr. couldn't escape the comparisons, which begin with the fact he bears a facial resemblance to his father.

On the field, he has a long way to go to achieve what his father did. So do countless other ballplayers, but their last names aren't Clemente.

"I know there is no way that I can be like my father," Roberto Jr. said. "People will tell me: 'Your father used to hit to right field like this and left field like that.' It bothers me a little bit because we're two different people."

The comparisons began early.

"I used to put my fingers in my ears when I'd go play," Roberto Jr. said. "When I was a little kid people used to say, 'You're nothing compared to your father.' What could I say? I was just a kid. I learned to deal with it."

Roberto Jr. was not told of his father's fate the day of the crash. He remembers that night he and his two younger brothers were taken to stay with the godfather of one of his brothers. The boys did not see their mother, Vera, for two or three weeks after the plane crash, Roberto Jr. said.

"My mother got real sick," Roberto Jr. said. "She couldn't do anything. She was hysterical for a whole month. When my brothers and I went home, I knew there was something wrong. When I went in the house, everyone was hugging and kissing me and crying. Manny Sanguillen and Willie Stargell (of the Pirates) pulled me aside and asked if everything was OK. They told me that my father had disappeared and they would try to find him."

Fourteen years later, Roberto Jr. has vivid memories of his father.

He remembers how his father used to watch late-night scary movies and sleep during the day while Vera Clemente told her children to be quiet. He recalls how his father never spanked him.

"All he had to do was look at me and I wouldn't breathe," Roberto Jr. said. "I would stop right there, which showed the respect I had for him. My mom used to have to shake me to get me to move."

The Clementes moved from their home in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, to Pittsburgh each baseball season. Vera Clemente bought a home in Pittsburgh three years after her husband died, and she still owns the homes in Rio Piedras and Pittsburgh.

When Roberto, Jr., was young, his father always made him at home in the locker room. He remembers how his father would play with him and his brothers in the Pirate clubhouse after games.

Then there was the time that Roberto Jr. hit two home runs (over the fielder's head) and a single in a Pirates' father-son game in the summer of 1971.

Already, his father saw promise in his eldest son. He offered advice--don't be a catcher.

"He even told my mom if I was a baseball player, good or bad, not to let me be a catcher," Roberto Jr. said. "He said it was a very hard position to play. My parents were very good friends with Manny Sanguillen (a catcher), and his legs were not too good after several years."

Shortly after Roberto Sr. died, Victor Enriquez became a surrogate father of the Clemente children. Enriquez's mother-in-law had grown up with Roberto Sr.

Enriquez made certain that Roberto Jr. had an opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps. He took him to baseball practices and games.

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