Roberto Clemente Jr. spent a few seasons in the Phillies minor leagues and believes his career could have been different.
Roberto Clemente Jr. was dressing for his first spring training workout in February 1986 when a Phillies official alerted him to a group of reporters waiting outside the clubhouse in Clearwater, Fla. He signed with the team a month earlier for $40,000. Now the press wanted to know how the 18-year-old compared to his famous father.
“The questions were all the same,” Clemente said. “I said, ‘Listen, there’s players in the major leagues who can’t compare to him. How can you compare me to him?’ But they didn’t get it. They kept asking the same questions.”
For the reporters, it was an easy comparison as the dad — who died 50 years ago in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve — started his Hall of Fame career as an 18-year-old in Puerto Rico. Perhaps they were about to witness the start of another icon.
But what the reporters could not see on the backfields in Florida was the pain the young Clemente carried with him after losing his father when he was just 7 years old. He tormented himself for years for not doing enough to prevent his father from boarding the ill-fated flight to Nicaragua, where the baseball icon intended to provide aid to earthquake victims.
And months after his father died, the son said he was sexually abused by a family member. The pain of losing his father became even greater.
He internalized everything, not even allowing his mother to know about the mental anguish he was dealing with. And perhaps his career with the Phillies — which began with him being late to his first workout as he fielded inane questions — may have played out differently if he hadn’t endured a traumatic childhood.
“A hundred percent,” Clemente said. “That accident was the catalyst for my life to go the way that it went. A lot of people don’t know my story. I kind of kept everything tight to the vest as part of my experiences and all the stuff that I was going through.”
Joining the Phillies
Luis Peraza’s major-league career was brief — he made eight relief appearances in 1969 for the 99-loss Phillies — but he did have the feather in his cap of retiring the older Clemente twice in the same game at Connie Mack Stadium.
Peraza, who pitched for years in the Puerto Rican winter league, became a scout for the Phillies in the 1970s and focused his attention on the island that he and Clemente called home. It was there that Peraza spotted the younger Clemente when he was 14.
An outfielder like his father, Clemente was filling in that day behind the plate as his team’s catcher was sick. Peraza approached Clemente after the game, told him he liked what he saw, and filed a report to the Phils. Three years later, Clemente was home from school when Peraza spotted him again. The scout asked him to work out the next day and then called Phillies brass to tell them Clemente was ready to sign.
The top decision makers flew to Puerto Rico in January 1986 and signed Clemente. He was soon getting ready in Clearwater while reporters waited.
“When I signed, missing Dad and not having Dad around to advise me and guide me, to know what to expect when I got there, I missed him in so many ways and so many layers and levels in my life,” Clemente said. “That was evident to me when I walked through that clubhouse door. I was very excited, but at the same time, I wasn’t really there.
“The story would have been a different story because I knew how he was a fantastic teacher. I was there when he did baseball clinics for kids and [saw] how he approached teaching and broke everything down to make it simple and clear.”
His father was not with him during his years in the minors, but there seemed to be reminders everywhere as many of his instructors — former players like Tony Taylor, Ruben Amaro Sr., and Roly de Armas — knew his dad. The older Clemente hit .330 against the Phillies — his second-best mark against all clubs — and was the face of the franchise that was a rival of the Phillies for the decade after his death. Now his son was wearing the other side’s colors.
“I was a rival,” Clemente said. “I was looked at as a rival because I’m a Clemente. I’m a Pittsburgh Pirate. What am I doing here, you know? But I loved the uniform. I loved the way they worked. I was a fan.”
Keeping it in
Clemente traveled around the country after his father’s death, accepting honors and awards on his family’s behalf and often flying by himself early in the morning. His childhood seemed to end after his father’s plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean almost immediately after taking off from an airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“In my mind, I grew up alone in the world. I always thought that my mom was protecting my two brothers,” Clemente said. “It was a lifestyle not for a kid.”
The sexual abuse began soon after as Clemente said he was an easy target following the loss of his father. Those two events, Clemente said, became a handicap for the rest of his life and affected everything that he did as he kept it all bottled up.
“Not being able to speak about it was torture,” he said. “Whenever you need help, you have to be able to raise your hand and ask for help. That’s something that took me a really long time to understand.”
Clemente’s baseball career lasted just three seasons as his mental anguish was compounded by knee injuries. He never reached the majors, failing to compare on the diamond to his Hall of Fame father.
But away from the field, Clemente’s calling is similar to the work his father did. He eventually found help for the scars he carried from his childhood and partnered with a Pittsburgh company that deals with human performance to create an app focused on brain health.
“I’ve overcome a lot of things,” Clemente said. “I truly believe that it was helping, giving, giving of my time. I know for a fact that the only thing that kept me going was the way that I was raised by my mother. Watching her interact with others, the way she gave herself to people. For me, a feeling of helping is the only thing that kept me alive. Because I really didn’t do anything for me. In many ways, I was probably killing myself every single day, but at the end of the day, I knew I was here to help and that kept me going.”
Clemente is on the board of the Roberto Clemente Foundation, whose mission is to “promote positive change and community engagement through the example and inspiration of Roberto.”
The foundation holds baseball clinics, provides disaster relief, and performs community outreach around the world. Clemente said he is often asked about his father’s baseball career because to some, Roberto Sr.’s humanitarianism is more known than his 3,000 hits and two World Series rings.
The foundation presents the Roberto Clemente Award each season to a major leaguer who “best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy, and positive contributions, both on and off the field.” There is a movement to retire No. 21 across the majors, honoring Clemente the same way the league honored Jackie Robinson.
It has been 50 years since Clemente’s death, but his memory is still alive.
His son traveled in early December from his home in Pittsburgh to Puerto Rico, providing aid to people who were affected by recent hurricanes. They held baseball clinics in the afternoon and delivered meals at night.
It was the type of work his father would have done, the type of relief he was aiming to bring 50 years ago to Nicaragua. Perhaps those reporters in Clearwater weren’t that far off to compare the son to his dad.
“I’m sure he’s proud of what his family has become,” Clemente said. “And has continued to really pave the way for people to understand that giving is the way to life and how we all should look at each other and help each other.”