It was 35 years ago this month that Roberto Clemente picked up his 3,000th and final hit, followed by an offseason in which he died in a New Year's Eve plane crash while attempting to transport relief supplies to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. Just say the name "Clemente" around Major League Baseball, and it commands double-respect in terms of all-around championship greatness on the field and a selfless commitment to humanitarian goodwill.
The winner of his legacy award will be announced during next month's World Series, and there is further incentive for fans to be part of the decision-making. All voters will be automatically eligible to win a trip for two to attend Game 3 of the 2007 Fall Classic. The winner of the Roberto Clemente Award is traditionally presented with the Clemente Award by Selig and Vera Clemente before the game.
American League candidates include Carl Crawford of the Rays, Curtis Granderson of the Tigers, Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels, Travis Hafner of the Indians, Torii Hunter of the Twins, Raul Ibanez of the Mariners, David Ortiz of the Red Sox, Jorge Posada of the Yankees, Mike Sweeney of the Royals, Nick Swisher of the A's, Jim Thome of the White Sox, Michael Young of the Rangers, Jamie Walker of the Orioles and Vernon Wells of the Blue Jays.
National League candidates include Craig Biggio of the Astros, Miguel Cabrera of the Marlins, Aaron Harang of the Reds, Matt Holliday of the Rockies, Orlando Hudson of the Diamondbacks, Tim Hudson of the Braves, Derrek Lee of the Cubs, Paul Lo Duca of the Mets, Derek Lowe of the Dodgers, Jamie Moyer of the Phillies, Russ Ortiz of the Giants, Jake Peavy of the Padres, Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, Jeff Suppan of the Brewers, Jack Wilson of the Pirates and Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals.
All 30 of them already are winners, at the club level, so each is receiving a prestigious distinction on this sixth annual Roberto Clemente Day. Chevrolet will make a $7,500 donation in the name of each local club recipient to the charity of his choice. Chevrolet will donate $30,000 and one of its vehicles to the charity of choice for the overall winner and will make a $30,000 contribution in the winner's name to Roberto Clemente Sports City in Puerto Rico, where the Pirates' legend was raised.
"On behalf of Major League Baseball, I am proud to recognize the 2007 club winners of the Roberto Clemente Award, and commend them for making significant contributions both on and off the field," Selig said. "We are pleased that valued sponsor Chevrolet is joining us in celebrating the life of baseball great Roberto Clemente, and honoring this group of 30 players whose performance on the field and dedication and commitment to the community truly embody the spirit of this award."
"We at Chevrolet join in celebrating the life and legacy of Roberto Clemente," said Ed Peper, general manager, Chevrolet. "Through our sponsorship of the Roberto Clemente Award we pay tribute to those who choose to follow in his footsteps."
The award was originally known as The Commissioner's Award, but was renamed in 1973 in honor of Clemente. Recent winners include Carlos Delgado (2006), John Smoltz (2005), Edgar Martinez (2004), Moyer (2003), Thome (2002), Curt Schilling (2001), Al Leiter (2000) and Tony Gwynn (1999). Other recipients have included Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Brooks Robinson, Al Kaline, Willie Stargell, Lou Brock, Rod Carew, Phil Niekro, Gary Carter, Cal Ripken, Jr., Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith and Kirby Puckett.
The 30 club winners all have made lasting impressions in their own right, each unique in terms of giving back to the community. Each of them was chosen by his club during the season. Since Mays won the first one in 1971 -- again before Clemente's passing -- there has not been a multi-year overall winner, so Moyer and Thome would have to break new ground there.
"It's just great, there's no doubt," Thome said, speaking about his nomination. "When I won that award before, it really meant a lot. It's something that is done off the field in a good way, with charitable work. But it's an award not done alone. For what you put into it, you also have to have a good organization and a good family working with you."
When Thome won the award in 2002, it coincided with the advent of Roberto Clemente Day. That year marked the 25th anniversary of Clemente's death, and it was seen as another way to celebrate his legacy and also recognize the local club nominees. The MLB-wide celebration of Roberto Clemente Day on Wednesday will take place at Wrigley Field in Chicago, prior to the evening's game between the Pirates and Cubs. As part of the league-wide celebration, the Roberto Clemente Day logo will appear on the bases, commemorative home plates and official dugout lineup cards. All home teams on Wednesday will acknowledge their local recipients of the award, and visiting clubs will do so for their recipients during an upcoming homestand.
One of the favorites for this year's overall award could be Biggio as a special sendoff in this his farewell season -- and it would hardly be a sentimental choice alone. Biggio's "Sunshine Kids" charity work is legendary across the game. Since the early 1990s, the future Hall of Famer has been active in the organization, a support group for children with cancer and their families. He hosts an annual baseball party at Minute Maid Park, where more than 100 children with cancer play baseball, with Biggio serving as the pitcher. He and his wife Patty have made massive commitments over the years to this cause, in various ways, and the popular stamp of recognition is that Sunshine Kids pin he wears wherever possible on his baseball cap.
"It's a nice honor to be nominated for that," Biggio said of the Clemente Award. "Obviously, to be able to do something in the community is something I enjoy doing. I enjoy giving back. To get recognized for your efforts is a nice thing.
"Everybody knows how much I love the Sunshine Kids. Roberto Clemente, that's what he was all about. He loved the game, but he loved giving back to the community. This award is a very nice standard."
To experience the full effect of this award's magnificent impact, it is worth the investment of time to read all 30 articles written about the club recipients by those corresponding MLB.com beat writers. Read one after another, and then you almost certainly develop a greater appreciation for what typically goes on around Major League Baseball away from the klieg lights and the milestones and the drama.
There isn't much question about what this means to the average baseball fan today, which makes the addition of fan voting such an exciting element. Just look at the record-shattering turnout in Cooperstown this July for the Hall of Fame inductions of Gwynn and Ripken. The typical fan interviewed that memorable weekend by MLB.com spoke emotionally not only of the way those two legends had played the game during their careers, but also about how those two Clemente Award winners touched the lives of fans off the field.
One by one, the nominees echoed the same sentiment when asked what it means to be considered for the Roberto Clemente Award:
"That is right up there with the All-Star Game," Sweeney said. "The Roberto Clemente Award, you don't get awarded that for your numbers on the back of your baseball card, but the work that you do on the city and the impact that you have on others' lives."
"Any time you're recognized for what you're doing it's an honor," Wells said, "especially to be in the same breath as a great man like Roberto Clemente. I think part of our jobs is to give back and to be a person who kids can look up to and ... hopefully change the lives of a few young kids."
"Awards are nice and everything, but you don't do this kind of stuff for the awards," Zimmerman said.
There are 30 Major League players who have done "this kind of stuff" on a regular basis. It usually is not as popularized as what they are doing on the playing field. But this is the stuff that truly connects players with the public in the most tangible way possible, in the offseason as well as the summers. Now, for the first time, fans can acknowledge that in an important way as a real part of the Roberto Clemente Award.