Did you die? No? You’re still alive?
You don’t deserve this award.
Oh, you do community service. You have some foundations. You speak at elementary schools.
Were you ever so concerned that a dictatorship wasn’t allowing aid to reach earthquake victims that you hopped aboard a suspect plane to ensure help got to the people who needed it?
Didn’t think so.
This may seem like strange ground for driving in a stake and setting up a soap box, but you see, the night before the last day of second grade I sat in my bedroom and sobbed.
I was on my floor, clutching our school-issued reading book that I would be forced to turn in the next day. It was a thick, square shaped, unwieldly hardcover book. I can still see the brown and yellow color scheme plastered throughout pages that smelled the way textbooks do. Inside was a story that had grabbed me and compelled me to read it repeatedly throughout the school year.
I cried every time I reached the end of that story, but that night with each reading (and there must have been at least 5) I sobbed plainful cries as I mourned the pending loss of this book and the beautiful story it held.
I had fallen in love with Roberto Clemente.
The story in the book was an uncomplicated version of his life, how he came from Puerto Rico to become a great baseball player. How his greatest desire was to help people, and how he died in a plane crash doing just that.
I hear Latin American players express their admiration for him and I want to yell, “Yes, yes, I agree!” He isn’t a national hero to me. He isn’t my guiding spirit as I try to follow in his baseball footsteps. It’s the humanity with which he lived his life that struck me in second grade, and has remained something I highly revere.
The idea of the Roberto Clemente Award is beautiful. Many players give back and it’s a nice thing to recognize. But Clemente was so driven to make sure the supplies were delivered to the victims of the earthquake in Nicaragua that he got on a plane, despite many warning signs, and died because he had to help.
His story only became more meaningful to me as I grew up. I understood it on a basic level in second grade, and it struck a part of me that was still innocent. I’ve grown cynical in my old age and to realize that a great player willing to risk his life the way he did seems all the more remarkable. His death isn’t a tragedy because we lost an incredible ball player. It’s a deeply sad loss because he was an amazing human.
I can’t help but look bitterly on the award as diminishing his immense contributions.
The announcement came of this year’s winner, and like all the years before I heard it and thought, did you die? No? You don’t deserve it.
No one deserves the award named after him, except the man himself.
I can, however, see it as a tribute to someone we should never forget.
I wish I still had that old school book with the story that made me fall in love with a remarkable human being who happened to be baseball player. The simplicity. The innocence. A story about wanting to do good things in the world.
We all need that school book.