By Ross Forman
SAN JUAN, P.R. – There’s Roberto Clemente, and then everyone else.
That list of other Puerto Ricans to have played in Major League Baseball is impressive, to say the least. There’s Ivan Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar, Carlos Beltran, Bernie Williams, Yadier Molina, Carlos Delgado, Jorge Posada, Orlando Cepeda and Javy Lopez, among others.
But Clemente is still king in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that is the largest insular territory of the U.S., located in the northeastern Caribbean Sea – with San Juan serving as its capital and the most populous city. Puerto Rico has a population of about 3.4 million, and it’s an island known for its rich history, tropical climate, diverse natural scenery, traditional cuisine … and baseball, with Clemente still the most-talked about local to have ever played in the majors.
Clemente spent 18 seasons as a hard and accurate-throwing right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a 15-time All-Star, the National League MVP in 1966, a four-time batting champion, a 12-time Gold Glove winner from 1961-1972 … and he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, becoming the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be enshrined.
Clemente was killed Dec. 31, 1972, in a plane crash while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. His untimely death established the precedent that, as an alternative to the five-year retirement period, a player who has been deceased for at least six months is eligible for entry into the Hall of Fame.
Clemente was a shoo-in for induction.
“He did so many things for us,” said Christian Rosa, 30, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and ultimately played minor league baseball. “You can see Roberto Clemente as a baseball player, but he did other stuff that made him the greatest.”
Clemente was often involved in charity work in Latin American and Caribbean countries during the off-season, delivering baseball equipment, food and more to those in need. And, since 1971, MLB has presented the Roberto Clemente Award (named the Commissioner’s Award in 1971 and 1972) to an individual who is personally involved in community work. A trophy and a donation check for a charity of the winner’s choice is presented at the World Series.
The Roberto Clemente Award is not an annual award; rather, the Commissioner presents the trophy at his discretion. Past winners have included Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr., Vin Scully, Ichiro, and others.
Clemente’s legacy is still strong here. After all, Roberto Clemente Stadium is a 12,500-seat facility in Carolina, Puerto Rico. During a mid-September visit, I toured Old San Juan, the oldest settlement and a National Historic Landmark District. One of the gift shops sold anything and everything Puerto Rico-related, including two books about Clemente – the only sports items I saw at the shop.
Clemente’s paper trail dates back to his 1955 Topps rookie card (No. 164). In mid-September, that card with a BVG 8 grade was being sold on eBay, in a buy-it-now auction, for $60,000.
Rosa said sports memorabilia isn’t super hot in Puerto Rico.
“(The hobby) is not that big here,” he said.
He added that there is only one local store he knows that sells sports memorabilia, located in a mall.
Autographs, or the art of autograph-seeking, is popular in Puerto Rico, Rosa said.
Rosa has, in fact, signed autographs himself back in the day, on a smaller scale. A four-year high school baseball player, Rosa then played four years split between Frank Phillips College and Tusculum College in Tennessee. His minor league career included time with the Rockford (Ill.) Riverhawks in the Frontier League and the Batavia (N.Y.) Muckdogs in the New York-Pennsylvania League.
Now 30, Rosa works as the Lead Pool Recreation at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino – and looks like he could still smack a home run or catch a would-be runner attempting to steal second base.
The top three Major League teams among locals are the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.
“Our fans like to win,” Rosa said.
Ice hockey is … limited in Puerto Rico, to put it mildly. There is one ice rink on the island, located in Aguadilla, a town on the western coast. The town owns and administers the ice rink, which is open seven days a week.
Field hockey is more popular, Rosa said.
Soccer is more popular to play among locals than football. Many locals cheer for the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks, Rosa said. Tom Brady is popular, as is Tony Romo and, naturally, Tony Cruz, who is Puerto Rican.
Volleyball is, arguably, the second most-popular sport behind baseball among locals, followed by basketball. LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers are popular among locals, along with the Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls. J.J. Barea, who broke into the NBA in 2006, is back with the Dallas Mavericks after time with Minnesota – and he’s a Puerto Rico native. Carlos Arroyo, most known for his brief stint with the Miami Heat, also is a celeb with Puerto Ricans.
Track & field, as well as tennis, are popular among locals too.
After all, Puerto Rico boasts Monica Puig.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Puig became the first athlete to win an Olympic gold medal while representing Puerto Rico and the ninth overall medalist for that delegation. She was the first Latin American player to win the women’s singles tournament. Defeating two top-5 opponents, she bested the second-ranked player in the world, Angelique Kerber, in the finals. Puig is the only unseeded female player to win gold since the reintroduction of tennis in 1988.
Shirts saluting Puig were for sale in September.
Puerto Rico has produced several who have shined in pro wrestling, most notably, Carlos Colon, a 2014 inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame.
“(Pro wrestling) was huge back in the day in Puerto Rico,” Rosa said.
Rosa tagged the most popular pro wrestlers among locals as Steve Austin, The Rock and The Undertaker.
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.