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Family, friends and fans celebrate Clemente at fundraiser

Major League Baseball announced each team's nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award -- the humanitarian award presented annually by the league in his honor -- and will celebrate Roberto Clemente Day on Wednesday. But the celebration of his life and contributions began on Monday night when the Clemente family, fans and former teammates gathered at the Roberto Clemente Museum's fifth annual fundraiser gala in "The Great One's" adopted second home town of Pittsburgh.

"They were singing and dancing downstairs and playing the band's instruments. The kids and grandkids are all very into music," said Duane Rieder, the Clemente Museum's executive director and curator.

The atmosphere was very much like being at a family party, which indeed it was. Clemente's widow Vera spent most of the evening visiting and posing for pictures with just about every one of the approximately 150 people in attendance.

"Having this museum in Pittsburgh is a great honor for the family because we know how loyal and genuine the fans here in Pittsburgh have been for so many years. We're happy that they have a place they can come to be with Roberto again," said Vera Clemente, who was recently named a goodwill ambassador by Commissioner Bud Selig, and sits on the committee that reviews the applications for each team's Roberto Clemente Award candidates.

Clemente's sons Luis and Roberto Jr. and grandson Roberto also were in attendance, as well as many members of the extended family. A frequent visitor to the museum, Luis spoke of the family's contribution to the exhibits.

"A lot of the memories from when dad started playing with the Pirates here in 1955 are on display, not only baseball-related but also from his private life. You can find photos and the sales brochures of his apartment that he rented here in town and Eastern Airline tickets. There's a photo of him and mom on a plane together," said Luis while pointing towards a display case on the wall. "We collaborated with Duane and gave him a lot of things."

Located in charming, restored old engine house No. 25 in the Lawrenceville neighborhood about three miles from PNC Park, the Clemente Museum houses the largest collection of Clemente photographs and memorabilia assembled in one place. Many of the items and artifacts on display are on loan to the museum from the Clemente family and assembled by Rieder, a commercial photographer who began creating a Pittsburgh Pirates and Clemente photo archive as part of a calendar project 10 years ago. An extensive new display of Clemente baseball cards was unveiled at the fundraiser party on Monday night.

Former Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen sat in a chair by a wing of the museum that bears his name.

"Roberto Clemente was a special person, he was my angel. ... Roberto gave his life for people he didn't even know. "In his life he wanted to see people happy and he appreciated people he didn't even know." said Sanguillen.

When news arrived on New Year's Eve 1972 that the flight Clemente had boarded to carry relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua had crashed into the ocean near the Bermuda Triangle, Sanguillen rushed to the scene and spent hours searching for Clemente, without any diving equipment, in 120 feet of water.

Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster and former Bucs starter Steve Blass was a teammate of Clemente's for 10 years, including the Pirates' 1971 World Series championship season, and he was also on hand for the celebration and spoke of the special place the museum holds in his heart.

"The Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh is to me a sacred place; unfortunately it's one of the best kept secrets in Pittsburgh," said Blass of the museum, where tours are available. "It is a fabulous testimonial to this man whose legacy will not go away. When you consider how long it's been since he was on this earth and what he accomplished as a player and humanitarian; these many years have passed and still every year there is a movie, a documentary, a book, a playground, a street, something named after him. That does not happen, it just doesn't happen. But it happens because of who Roberto Clemente was, so to have this place, this museum that Duane Rieder has beautifully crafted, is sacred to me. I just love coming here, I drive up the street to this place and I walk in and I feel good."

It's been 42 years since Clemente's death, but you'd be hard-pressed to find another player in baseball history that left such a lasting impression upon his team and its city. His name and image are synonymous with the town. His number 21 remains the most popular on T-shirts and jerseys worn by fans at Pirates home games. The Roberto Clemente Bridge, formerly the Sixth Street Bridge that was renamed in his honor when the Pirates moved into PNC Park in 2001, connects downtown to the ballpark, serving as a grand walkway. Beyond the right-field wall, which rises to a height of 21 feet, the Roberto Clemente Memorial Park contains a series of cascading waterfalls that many people wade in on hot summer days, and a bronze relief in Clemente's image. Roberto Clemente Drive, near the Pirates' old Forbes Field where Clemente broke in with the team, was also renamed in his honor.

Outside of Pittsburgh, Clemente was a hero to a generation of Latin American baseball fans who grew up watching him play around the country. Gabriel LaCosta, 52, was among those in attendance at the museum and recalled being a Clemente fan during the late 1960s. Although LaCosta now resides in Pittsburgh, he grew up in Tijuana, Mexico.

"I was one of six kids, and me and my family would take my cousin, there would be 20-25 of us, and we would go to Jack Murphy Stadium and sit outside and wait for the Pirates to come out," said LaCosta. "You wanted to be Clemente. Everybody wanted to wear 21. Everybody wanted to crack their neck like Clemente did when you came up to bat. Everybody wanted to hold the bat up high. He was amazing, the way he carried himself, what he did for us.

"The biggest influence he had for me was knowing that a Latin American player could make it that big in the big leagues, and later on in my career, when I got an opportunity to work for Apple Computer, the first question I asked myself was, 'Who is this kid from Tijuana working at Apple Computer?' And then I said, 'If Clemente can play in the Majors, then I can work at Apple Computer.'"

And so while the rest of the baseball world awaits this year's winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, his perpetual legacy will continue to be celebrated here in Pittsburgh.

Charlie Vascellaro is a contributor to
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