MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Clemente's flight hasn't made it to Managua this time, either. Vera Clemente's, that is.
But the plane taking her back to Nicaragua for the first time since the death of her husband, Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates, on New Year's Eve, 1972, has not disappeared into the Caribbean, as his did. It simply has not gotten off the ground in San Juan.
Commandante Emmett Lang, Nicaragua's minister of sport, huddles with an entourage from the Institute of Sport at Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport. Magdalena Lacayo, 16, daughter of the chief of protocol, stands quietly nearby, her bouquet of flowers wilting in the late spring afternoon.
Lang and the welcoming party retreat to the shade while aides try to track down Vera Clemente's flight. Mechanical difficulties have grounded it in Puerto Rico. Perhaps, they hope, she will find other connections.
If not, this Central American nation of 3 million, who have waited for more than 16 years to honor the man who died on a mission to help the victims of the 1972 Managua earthquake, will wait even longer.
But Vera Clemente, 48, unfazed by a roundabout itinerary that takes her in an arc around the Caribbean, does not disappoint. The woman with short black hair swept back over an unlined face arrives after dark.
With a grace that has evolved over a quarter of century as the wife and then widow of the Caribbean basin's greatest athlete ever, Vera Clemente faces the impending swirl of recognition with composure.
"I came to Nicaragua with Roberto in November, 1972, when he managed the Puerto Rican team in the world amateur baseball championships," Vera says as she walks through what once was downtown Managua.
Despite four batting crowns and 12 Gold Gloves, the Pirate right fielder had labored in relative obscurity until dazzling the baseball world during the 1971 World Series. The next season, he got his 3,000th hit and became a hero across the Caribbean basin.
"We came to Nicaragua and found the people as we had been in Puerto Rico 30 years ago," Vera says. "Roberto saw himself in the boys in the streets--without shoes, living in a one-room house--much like it had been when his father worked for the sugar mill in Carolina.
"He changed a twenty-dollar bill into coins each morning and called boys over as we walked to ask them about their families. What work did their father do? What had they eaten for dinner last night? And then he dug into his pockets for them."
They returned to Puerto Rico on Dec. 8, accompanied by Federico and Marianne Lacayo. Marianne, who was from Puerto Rico, was pregnant with Magdalena.
"We were eating at our house on Dec. 23, when Federico felt a terrible upset in his stomach and had to lie down," Vera says. "We soon found out that that was when the earthquake hit Managua."
The upheaval killed 7,000, injured 20,000, and left 200,000 homeless. The Clementes spearheaded relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
Only the Bank of America building, the National Palace, and the Intercontinental Hotel survived the tremors. Sixteen years later, central Managua remains largely unreconstructed. Families squat in the shells of buildings while boys play stickball in the hulking ruins of the national cathedral.
Vera takes it all in as she walks down streets where she once strolled arm in arm with Roberto, in what was to be their last time alone together.
Clemente is quiet as she enters the elevator--one of only five in the country--of the Intercontinental Hotel, where she and Roberto stayed in 1972. Moments later, standing by the window in what was then Howard Hughes' penthouse, she stares at Lake Managua and the craggy mountains and volcanoes that surround the city.
When the earthquake hit, Hughes and Gen. Anastasio Somoza, Nicaragua's president-dictator, were in this room negotiating the sale of the Corn Islands off the Atlantic Coast.
Soon after the quake, stories of the National Guard pilfering relief supplies began to surface and crews on the aid flights the Clementes sent had difficulty getting their goods to those in need.
"Our people here kept asking Roberto to come and straighten things out," Clemente says. "He didn't want to come. 'I will work better in Puerto Rico,' he said. But our people were having to fight to get the supplies to Masaya, where many of the survivors had gone.
"We almost went together, but we had friends coming and one of us had to stay. Then, I almost went instead of him, but he decided to go," Vera says with a shake of her head. "Someone asked him to wait until after New Year's Eve so that we could be together, but Roberto said, 'Don't worry. For me, every day is the same.' "
Roberto Clemente's flight took off the evening of Dec. 31 but plunged into the waters off Playa Isla Verde minutes later. Four others died with Clemente, whose body was never recovered.
An earthquake ultimately caused Roberto Clemente's death, and a hurricane brought Vera back to Nicaragua.