Back at Villa Boheme for lunch, there’s a message from Jorge Delgado. If I want to reach Roberto Clemente’s widow, he has her number. Vera Clemente, who lives in the same house in San Juan she and her husband bought years ago, is one of the most respected women in Puerto Rico. When I call, she invites us to stop by. But the day she has in mind is Thanksgiving. Won’t she want to be with her family?
“That doesn’t matter,” she says. “You come, too.”
On the way back to San Juan the following day, we stop by Roberto Clemente Stadium in Carolina, Clemente’s home town and the scene two months earlier of a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the day he reached 3,000 major league hits. A life-size statue outside the ballpark depicts the Pirates slugger in mid-swing on his momentous final trip to the plate in 1972. The image captures all the grace and dignity Clemente brought to the game.
We have no trouble finding his house. It’s not only on Roberto Clemente Street, but, on a side terrace, there’s a big “21,” the number he wore, fashioned in white stones.
Judging by the many cars, most of the Thanksgiving guests are already here. Suddenly we’re feeling like intruders. “We can’t just show up at somebody’s house on Thanksgiving,” Irina says. I agree, but we’re invited. Do we just turn around and leave?
Instead, I lightly tap on the door, and a grandson appears, looking just like his famed grandfather when he broke into the majors.
As is typical at Puerto Rican get-togethers, the Clemente clan greets us as if we’re part of the family. First stop is the living room for a look at what amounts to a Roberto Clemente museum, with Vera serving as our guide. There are paintings of her late husband, a bronzed outfielder’s glove and, among his many awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed posthumously in 2003.
Fans from Pittsburgh occasionally stop by the house. Sometimes it can get pretty emotional, Vera says, but she understands what her husband’s memory means to people.
Clemente died helping others, and every fall during the World Series, Major League Baseball gives the Roberto Clemente Award to a player who best exemplifies his humanitarian spirit. This year, the Puerto Rican Baseball League added Clemente’s name and image to its official logo.
One project Vera was determined to complete was the Roberto Clemente Sports City in Carolina. The 300-acre complex is dedicated to providing athletic opportunities in baseball and other sports for children throughout Puerto Rico, the kind of opportunities Clemente never had as a boy working in the sugar cane fields.
Luis Clemente, one of his father’s three sons and president of the foundation that runs the facility, says his dad never forgot where he came from.
There are more hugs and kisses, and an invitation to come back the next time we’re in Puerto Rico.
“What an amazing afternoon,” Irina says on our way to the car. Meeting the Clemente family was the highlight of our trip. And she finally admits it was baseball that made the whole thing possible.
Which doesn’t mean she’ll be going to a game anytime soon, but we will be coming back to Puerto Rico. And baseball season starts up again in November.