I met a wonderful young teenager today for coffee to answer questions he might have about my alma mater. He was bright, disciplined, sincere, focused, eloquent, polite, and outstanding in so many respects I don’t have space here to list them. With a passion for computers and learning everything he can about the world, plus a background that already includes founding a successful charitable corporation, the world, and our nation in particular, are better for having him in it. Late in our meeting I learned that his role model is his father who worked so hard as a young man in one of those shithole countries in Latin America and was able decades ago to matriculate at a fine American university. That man is now a senior executive at a large American corporation with a son who has already made him proud.
The café was closing this afternoon as we finished our talk. I noticed that the manager letting us out was wearing a yellow Pittsburgh Pirates Clemente t-shirt.
“Greatest of men,” I told the manager and he smiled and thanked me.
Outside, the teen asked who Clemente was and it was hard for me to contain my enthusiasm. “Go home and Google him,” I replied. “He was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Tragically he died a young man in a New Year’s Eve 1972 plane crash delivering needed emergency supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua, just a few countries away from the place your father came from.”
We said good-bye. By now, I am supremely confident that this young man has searched the name Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker and learned more about him than I ever did. He knows I’m sure that Clemente was born in Puerto Rico, a United States unincorporated territory since 1898 that has been exploited for a very long time and (were it not for last fall’s lingering hurricane tragedy putting it in the news daily) would still be one of those countries to our current leadership. He knows that as a Black Puerto Rican entering baseball just a few years after Jackie Robinson, Clemente experienced his share of racial discrimination but always took the high road above derision and division, quoted as stating that he did not believe in color. He knows that Clemente won 2 World Series titles with the Pirates and was MVP on one of those teams, played on 12 National League All-Star Teams, won 12 Gold Gloves and 4 National League Batting Titles, had 3,000 hits, and of course gained posthumous and early special election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He knows that Clemente served honorably as a member of the United States Marine Corps Reserve between 1958 and 1964. And he must surely now know that after years of off-season charitable work, Clemente chartered at his own expense and boarded that fateful flight to Nicaragua after learning that the aid packages on three earlier relief flights had not reached the victims in need due to government corruption in that country.
My sorrow from last week’s latest hurtful words leaking out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is dissipating a bit. The disdainful cynics run amok these days will surely point out that the lad I met and his father are exactly the kind of meritorious folks we ought to reserve America for. But merit’s a tricky concept, showing up in the most unlikely of places, and equity, freedom and peace are even trickier, showing up only when hearts are open and hands are extended down to help others up. The America I believe in wants to be a land of freedom and opportunity for all and a beacon of light for an entire world in dire need of justice and compassion. Roberto Clemente’s heart and hands knew no borders. With young people like the young man I met today leading the way neither will our future.