Clemente's legacy honored at gala to conclude MLBPA event
By Jesse Sanchez
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The baseball world descended on the Enchanted Island this week to honor the past, help the sport's future and celebrate the present.
"Peloteros Por Puerto Rico," a star-studded Puerto Rico goodwill tour spearheaded by the Major League Baseball Players Association in conjunction with Major League Baseball, concluded Saturday evening with a gala honoring the legacy of Roberto Clemente and celebrating the future of baseball on the island.
"It's been an amazing few days with everything that has been done on the island to honor Clemente and his legacy," said former Major League pitcher Javier Vazquez, an international special assistant for MLBPA. "It's been really fun to watch the guys interact with the kids. The players and the kids are having a good time and that's what it's all about."
It was a busy final day. The players -- the Astros' Carlos Beltran (Puerto Rico), Nationals reliever Oliver Perez (Mexico), Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor (Puerto Rico), White Sox pitcher Jose Quintana (Colombia), Rays closer Alex Colome (Dominican Republic), Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (Venezuela), Cubs second baseman Javier Baez (Puerto Rico), Mariners closer Edwin Diaz (Puerto Rico) and Rays starter Chris Archer -- conducted a baseball clinic for almost 200 kids in Salinas, located 50 miles south of San Juan, earlier in the afternoon.
They were joined this week by former Major League players Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Delgado, Alex Cora, Bernie Williams, Eduardo Perez, Bobby Bonilla, Jose Cruz Jr., Jose Cruz Sr., Dennis Martinez and Tom Walker, along with legends of the Puerto Rican winter league.
The tour's first stop was in nearby Carolina with a baseball clinic for 150 young players at Estadio Roberto Clemente on Friday. Beltran opened the festivities with a reception a day earlier.
"It was awesome," Archer said. "We are just trying to do a sliver of what [Clemente] did and continue to pass on that legacy. It was very successful. I compliment the Major League Baseball Players Association for putting this together. It was a very unique one-on-one experience for the kids and that's what this trip was all about."
The Alomar brothers grew up less than a mile from Manuel Gonzalez Stadium, where Saturday's clinic was held. Sandy Alomar Sr., now an instructor for the Blue Jays, played on the same field when he was a boy.
"To have the opportunity to be here with the Major League Players Association and show them where me, my brother Roberto, my father and [former Major League outfielder] Ricky Ledee played is an honor," Alomar Jr. said. "It's very important for us to be here. We want kids and parents to be interested in baseball because it's always been one of the top sports here and we want to keep it that way."
Hours after showing kids how to play ball, Perez served as the master of ceremonies for the gala Saturday night. Vazquez, Martinez and Walker, who played winter ball with Clemente, later shared heartfelt stories of the Puerto Rican hero to 300 people during the hour-long program before dinner.
"Clemente was the first person to tell me that I was a special player, and I was just a young player when he said it," Martinez said. "But he said it and I believed him. I believed I was special because Roberto Clemente saw something special in me. And I'm grateful to God for the career that I had."
It was Walker who helped Clemente load supplies on the airplane to Martinez's earthquake-torn Nicaragua that crashed on Dec. 31, 1972. Walker begged Clemente to let him get on the plane. The Hall of Fame outfielder refused to let him board.
"It was an incredible time here in Puerto Rico, a very sad time," Walker said. "Roberto gave his life for what he cared about the most, and that's philanthropy and giving back and being a server. There is a way to give back and he did it very well. I've learned to give back. I've learned that there's a more important mission in life than just going through life."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.