THE BLOG
12/28/2012 03:14 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

The Great Roberto Clemente

This is a story I wrote for my daughter when she was scared of going to kindergarten a couple of years ago ... I wanted to post it as a tribute to Roberto Clemente, a great ballplayer but greater man who died 40 years ago helping the earthquake victims in my birthplace of Nicaragua -- he was a true role model to millions from my generation

The little boy stepped off the plane from Managua, Nicaragua to Washington, DC, with great worry, not excitement. He left his friends, his beloved abuela, tropical weather, delicious pan dulce and a colorful country full of volcanoes, lakes and beaches for a cold, grey city of pavement, cars and serious men in suits greyer than the weather. At least that's what he saw from the taxi ride to his new house in America on his ride from the airport.

"Go to sleep hijito," said his mami when they arrived at a brick house on Yuma Street across from a big church and next to a barbershop named Camilo's. He woke up the next morning and he was suddenly his first day of school in the first grade. He never went to kindergarten. They didn't have kindergarten in Nicaragua.

It was the late sixties and Tito was the only brown boy in his class. Everyone else looked like the people in the story books, fair-skinned and acted as if the world was perfect. Quickly, he found out that they speak a strange language called English in Washington, DC, not Spanish. He only spoke Spanish. And no one spoke Spanish. The teacher couldn't even say his name right. He felt very out of place. So he never said a word. It was as if he was invisible.

Until the teacher noticed him and asked him a question. Tito didn't understand so he didn't respond. He just looked at the teacher with big brown eyes that he shut tight and pretended to be the great baseball player Roberto Clemente hitting a double off the wall, sliding into second base and popping up to dust his pants off ... But when he opened his eyes he was at school being yelled at in a language he didn't understand. Tito wished he actually was invisible.

The teacher was mad at him. But why? Tito's silence seemed to make her angrier. And the other kids in class started laughing as he sat wide-eyed trying to ask questions with his eyes. The madder the teacher got, the tighter Tito shut his eyes and pretended the laughter from the other kids was the clapping of fans because the great Roberto Clemente had just stolen third base ... Tito was jarred from watching the great Roberto Clemente when the teacher grabbed him by the arm and he had to open his eyes. He was in trouble. And he didn't know why.

The principal asked him why he didn't answer when the teacher asked him a question. He said he was being disrespectful. Tito once again just looked at the principal and tried to tell him with his big brown eyes that he didn't speak this strange language and was unable to answer. But his eyes couldn't speak. And neither could Tito. So he was sent home on his first day of school with watery eyes.

When he got home, Tito's papi was very upset. He thought Tito was misbehaving at school and punished him. This time Tito understood was his papi was saying because he was angry in Spanish. "No TV, no toys, no desert!" said Tito's papi while wagging his finger at the little boy.

Tito didn't mind. He knew that if he closed his eyes he could watch the great Roberto Clemente chase down a long fly ball in the right field corner barely avoiding the wall and catch the ball like it was a scoop of ice cream and the mitt was a cone. The announcer in his head said emphatically, "an amazing catch to save the game by the great Roberto Clemente."

Tito loved baseball. That's all they played in the playground in Nicaragua. He wanted to be a baseball player like his hero the great Roberto Clemente, who also spoke Spanish. His favorite team was the Pirates and his favorite number was 21 because the great Roberto Clemente played for them and wore that number. Tito had a Roberto Clemente baseball card that he carried with him all the time. Yes, Tito was in Washington, DC, going to a school with no friends but when he closed his eyes, he would watch his best friend, the great Roberto Clemente, gracefully run around the baseball diamond. What would he have done without Roberto Clemente? He would have been even more alone than he was. For the rest of first grade, Tito didn't say a word for the entire year.

But at home he was watching a lot of TV and began to learn English. He watched everything: cartoons, Sesame St, Electric Co, commercials, I mean everything. And baseball. Lost of baseball including watching the "Game of the Week" when the Pirates played with the great Roberto Clemente. He wanted so much to be like Roberto Clemente that he felt connected to him as he heard that the great Roberto Clemente was also trying to learn English. So, little by little he actually started to learn his new language and he started to fall in love the the great United States of America!

But he still didn't have any friends. And he had to repeat first grade. The new first graders weren't any friendlier than the last first graders. And made fun of him for repeating first grade. And for other reasons. They treated Tito like he was from another planet. They made fun that he was small. They made fun of his clothes. They made fun of his shiny hair that had brillantine in it. They made fun of the food he brought to lunch. They even made fun that he spoke Spanish, even though he now spoke English very well, and they only spoke English. Yes, he spoke two languages instead of one. And now he could answer them in two languages. In addition to learning English, he also learned to stick up for himself. In both languages ...

"Roberto Clemente speaks Spanish," he said to a gaggle of boys who were teasing him. They didn't have a comeback. Even the mean boys knew that Roberto Clemente was the best player in baseball. And by 1971, the great Roberto Clemente was even greater. He singlehandedly won the World Series against the Orioles who were from nearby Baltimore, MD and the home team for the DC area. His hero was also voted the Most Valuable Player in all of baseball!

Having the great Roberto Clemente as a comeback to the mean kids made Tito feel as though he had a big friend who was protecting him. For the next few years, the great Roberto Clemente made sure Tito was accepted by everyone. He made Tito feel as though he could do anything from playing baseball to spelling tricky words to adding crazy numbers. Tito wanted to live the way the great Roberto Clemente played baseball ... Roberto Clemente played hard, he played with pride, he played fearlessly, he actually seemed to enjoy being different, and he made people that didn't like him cheer for him. He even made sure people called him Roberto instead of Bob.

Thanks to the great Roberto Clemente, Tito figured out that knowing and appreciating who you really are - not what other people think of you - is the most important step in being successful in Washington, DC. And soon the teachers and other students soon started to like him.

Then, as his family was getting ready for the Christmas trip to Nicaragua, Tito was told by his papi they wouldn't be going this year. There was a horrible earthquake that destroyed his birthplace of Managua. Homes crumbled into rocks. Buildings fell. People were hurt. And the people that weren't hurt had no homes anymore. Tito's entire family lost their homes and had to leave for neighboring Costa Rica or Miami. It was the first time Tito saw his papi cry. It was two days before Christmas and Tito's papi said he wouldn't be able to spend it with the family and he left for Nicaragua to help.

Tito waved goodbye as his papi got on a plane to help the Nicaraguan people who were hurt. He said he would be back soon and for Tito to watch the news to be aware of what was happening in his birthplace. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Nicaragua in Washington, DC. A year earlier no one had heard of it but now everyone was asking if his family was okay. Tito felt even more proud than ever that he was from Nicaragua. And he prayed that his papi and his birthplace would be safe.
On New Year's Eve, Tito's papi finally came home. He looked tired and sad but hugged Tito harder than he ever hugged him before. Tito was happy his papi was home. His papi said he came home because non-other than the great Roberto Clemente was going to Nicaragua to help the poor people so things would be better now. Wow, thought Tito, not only did Roberto Clemente protect Tito but he wanted to protect tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who are suffering. Roberto Clemente was from Puerto Rico but cared about all people and wanted to do what he could to help. He was not only a hero on the baseball field and in Tito's playground-mind but all over the world. Tito felt very proud to be friends, sort of, with the great Roberto Clemente.

After dinner, Tito's family went to watch TV. Then, the news interrupted the TV show to say that something bad had happened. The great Roberto Clemente's plane crashed as he was flying to help Tito's family and other people in Nicaragua. There was a bad storm, the plan was overloaded with supplies to help people, and the great Roberto Clemente could not be found. After weeks of looking for him in the ocean, they said the great Roberto Clemente was dead.

Tito cried for a very long time. He didn't see Roberto Clemente when he shut his eyes to escape bad situations anymore. He missed his best friend. Even as Roberto Clemente was voted into the baseball Hall of Fame immediately, the first Latino to do so, Tito became even sadder.

One day, as he sat quietly in his room, Tito's papi came in and told him that now that the great Roberto Clemente is gone, that it's important Tito and others to become great to help take the great Roberto Clemente's place. In the same way Roberto Clemente made Tito feel when he was sad in first grade was the same way Tito needed to make other people feel. "Forget about baseball Tito," his papi said. "You benefited from Roberto Clemente in many other ways and the way to pay him back for helping you is for you to help others. You can be great like the great Roberto Clemente. And he's not here anymore so it's your turn to be great. And you can keep his spirit alive by being great like him. That way, through you, he will continue to help people like he helped you. Are you ready to be the great Tito?"

And he was.

And the great Roberto Clemente continues to be great through Tito and many others who felt his impact.