Past Clemente winners reflect on Award's prestige

September 16th, 2022

NEW YORK -- There’s a lot of hardware that players can earn throughout the course of a career in Major League Baseball. The best and brightest big leaguers end up with trophy cases filled with Most Valuable Player Awards, Cy Young Awards, Gold Glove Awards -- the list goes on.

But there’s one particular prize that stands above them all: the Roberto Clemente Award presented by Capital One.

Given every year to the player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions both on and off the field, the Clemente Award is widely regarded as the sport’s most prestigious individual player honor.

Fourteen previous recipients of the award came together in New York City on Thursday in acknowledgment of both the upcoming 50th anniversary of the late Hall of Famer’s tragic passing and MLB’s 21st annual Roberto Clemente Day. In a press conference at Citi Field ahead of the Pirates-Mets contest, half of them -- Steve Garvey (1981), Harold Reynolds ('91), Dave Winfield (‘94), Al Leiter (2000), Jim Thome (‘02), Carlos Delgado (‘06) and Curtis Granderson ('16) -- took to the podium to share what it means for them to be part of one of the most exclusive clubs in MLB, directly linked to the game’s greatest humanitarian. They were joined by Luis Clemente, one of Roberto’s three children.

“I know every player that’s sitting here and other players understand that this is a significant award because it represents what players do off the field,” said Leiter, a two-time World Series champion. “And as somebody who never won a Cy Young Award, I cherish this honor. … This trophy is prominently displayed, and every year, I can’t be more proud.”

Delgado, who was born in Puerto Rico mere months before Clemente’s death, called it “the most important trophy that I have in my house.” During his childhood, many of the places he frequented were named in honor of Clemente as a way to keep his memory alive, from arenas to ballparks to even whole streets.

“I always said that you do the right thing not to be recognized, but if you’re going to be recognized, be recognized by the Roberto Clemente Award,” said Delgado, a three-time Silver Slugger. “Growing up in Puerto Rico, ever since you are a little kid, you start to understand how great he was.”

Reynolds experienced that firsthand when he played winter ball in Puerto Rico in 1985, joking that “they might as well rename the whole island because everything’s about Roberto.” He understood the reasons, though, especially as one of the few award recipients in attendance who was old enough to have seen Clemente play. Reynolds was 12 when he watched the Pirates’ legend notch his 3,000th career hit on Sept. 30, 1972, becoming the first Latin American player to reach the hallowed mark.

“This is the greatest award you can receive as a baseball player, flat out,” said Reynolds, a three-time Gold Glover. “There’s no other way to look at it. … [I started] to learn the story of the man, and then years later, to be able to receive this honor in his name, I really understood the fullness of it.”

Winfield entered the league in 1973, having just missed a chance to meet and perhaps even play against Clemente. As a fellow right fielder, though, he paid close attention to how the defensive standout would charge balls, pick them cleanly and throw opponents out. Winfield also almost just missed out on winning the Clemente Award, admitting that “before I go, that was one of the things that I wanted to do.” He earned the distinction the season before his 22-year career came to a close.

“He was an incredible player and an even more incredible human being,” said Winfield, who also has a plaque in Cooperstown. “It was part of his life, part of his soul to do for others. And I knew that when I started playing professional baseball, we had a platform to reach a lot of people … so I was always looking for ways to do things for the underserved, the people who didn’t have a chance.”

For Granderson, who serves as president of the Players’ Alliance, the impetus for that willingness to do the work stems from the players’ personal lives, which then carries over into the professional sphere.

“We didn’t just get here by accident. There’s a community and a family that helped raise us and build us and be with us along the way,” said Granderson, a three-time All-Star. “I’m honored to be recognized in this position, because I’m not here if it’s not for the community. And now, I’m in a position to be able to give back to the community.”

In Thome’s mind, that idea of community extends to the baseball brotherhood more broadly, especially for this select group of award recipients -- many of whom met for the first time Thursday.

“We’ve formed this great fraternity because of [Clemente],” said Thome, another Hall of Famer. “And what he’s done is left this lasting legacy for all of us to enjoy.”

Coming together in service is their way to honor and carry on the legacy of the man whom Garvey said made the “ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice of trying to help others.”

“These men got it and others have gotten it, that our way to give back is by helping others and making a difference in people’s lives and continuing to do this throughout our lives,” said the 1974 National League MVP, “because we have been so blessed.”