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Mota recalls the greatness of Clemente

Longtime Dodgers icon spent six seasons with Hall of Famer in Pittsburgh

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On the occasion of his 76th birthday on Feb. 18, Manuel Rafael Geronimo Mota chose to present a profoundly personal and moving tribute to a man of enduring power and greatness: Roberto Walker Clemente.

Pulling up a chair in a corner of the Dodgers' spring clubhouse at Camelback Ranch, wearing the blue and white uniform he has graced for 46 years, Mota motioned over a journalist he has known for four decades and offered rare insights into the life and times of the legendary Hall of Famer who perished at sea on Dec. 31, 1972.

Clemente was attempting to fly relief goods into earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua when his plane crashed near San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was 38.

Here we are, 41-plus years later, and the striking image of the incomparable Pirates right fielder remains vividly fresh in Mota's mind. Four years his senior, Clemente was Manny's Pittsburgh teammate, friend, big-brother figure and benefactor, all in one dynamic package.

"Roberto Clemente, besides being a great player, was a wonderful human being -- a great person who did not accept injustice," Mota, in his 35th season as a Dodgers coach, began. "He was very strong about serving the people of his race, about representing all Latin Americans with pride and dignity.

"To us, Roberto was what Jackie Robinson was for African-Americans; he was the guy who spoke up on behalf of his people. He wanted all players to be treated with the same respect.

"Being Puerto Rican, he built confidence in Latin American people to not be afraid to express themselves. He was a very proud person, a very proud Puerto Rican, and he was a hero all through Latin America. I had the honor and privilege of being with Roberto Clemente for six years in Pittsburgh and got to know the person, not just the ballplayer. And he was just as great a person as a player."

Mota gave voice to a fascinating example of Clemente's commitment to teammates. It unfolded on May 9, 1964, Mota's second season with the Pirates and third in the Majors. He'd debuted in '62 with San Francisco, going to Pittsburgh via Houston on the eve of the 1963 season and hitting .270 in 50 games as a spare outfielder.

"We were facing Milwaukee that day," Mota said, "and my name was not in the starting lineup. The team was getting ready to cut five guys to get down to 25 after the first month, and I knew I was on the list.

"Right before the game started, I looked at the lineup card and saw that I was batting second [in front of Clemente, against lefty Denny Lemaster] and playing center field.

"As it turned out, I was [4-for-4] with three RBIs and we won [10-0]. After the game, Roberto came over to me and said, 'You know what? That game today saved your spot in the big leagues.' I found out later that he'd gone to [general manager] Joe Brown and asked him to put me in the lineup. 'Give Manny another chance,' he said.

"That's the kind of person he was. He had faith in me. I never went back to the Minor Leagues after that. I've never told that story before."

Mota was hitting .167 going into the game that rescued his career. The following day, he was back in the lineup and tripled home a run against Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Clemente drove home Mota with a single.

Mota would go on to play 20 seasons, his final 13 with the Dodgers. He finished with a .304 career average and held the all-time record for pinch hits with 150 when he retired. He is now third, behind Lenny Harris (212) and Mark Sweeney (175).

Another Clemente tale defined his fiercely competitive nature. There is lingering doubt about Babe Ruth calling his famous World Series shot against the Cubs, but Mota distinctly recalls Roberto carrying out a remarkable pledge against the intimidating Bob Gibson in 1967.

"He was a great player, great man -- first-class all the way. He showed us all how to act, with pride and dignity. That's why I admired him so much. Roberto was one of a kind. Our Jackie."
-- Manny Mota

"We were in St. Louis," Mota said, "and Gibson was knocking guys down. Roberto came in the dugout and said, 'I'm going to break that guy's leg.' First pitch in his next at-bat, he hit a line drive off Gibson's leg and broke it. He said he would do it and he did. Incredible."

Clemente, the driven perfectionist, comes into focus in a story Mota relates about how the 12-time Gold Glove Award winner once reacted to a rare defensive error.

"He used to have a trademark of throwing behind the runner at first base," Mota said. "One day on the road, a guy hit a ball down the right-field line and [Clemente] misplayed it, allowing the guy to get to second base.

"He always called me 'Geronimo.' The next day, he said, 'Geronimo, get a fungo bat and 75 balls.' I said, 'I'm a player, not a coach.' He said, 'Remember that ball I missed last night? I want 75 balls just like that so I can figure out what happened.' When I hit 45, he stopped me and said, 'OK, I figured it out. But keep hitting the balls. I want to make sure.'

"He was the best right fielder in baseball, but he always wanted to get better. That's why he was there that next day before anybody, working on his game.

"Another time, I was home in the Dominican when Roberto called me. It was getting close to Spring Training, and he said, 'Geronimo, I need to come and do some hitting.' So he shows up, and I take him to the ballpark and throw batting practice to him three days in a row. What dedication."

The Pirates, Mota recalled, occasionally would stoke Clemente's fires to prove he was as great as more celebrated contemporaries -- notably the Giants' magnificent Willie Mays.

"We had 10 Latin guys on the team," said Mota, who was born and raised in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. "One day we all got together and told Roberto that Mays was better because he hit with more power. 'Mays hits for average, RBIs and power, Roberto. You hit for average, but you don't hit for power. You get 80 RBIs; Willie gets 120.'

"There was a big rivalry between them at the time, and we got him. Roberto was fuming. That year [1966], he hit more home runs [29] than he'd ever hit. He'd always been a guy who hit to right and right-center, but he started turning on balls and driving them to left and left-center."

Clemente claimed the National League Most Valuable Player Award that season. He'd won batting titles the previous two years, but sacrificed some average for power production in raising his RBI output from 65 in 1965 to 119, a career best, along with the 29 homers.

"That made us so proud," Mota said. "Roberto told us, 'OK, guys, talk now.' He was so great, he could do whatever he put his mind to."

Mota recalled another superstar rival in Clemente's sphere: Sandy Koufax, the peerless Dodgers southpaw.

"Roberto had problems with his neck, his back," Mota said. "He played the game so hard, with so much passion, he threw his body around. When he'd get a base hit off Koufax, Sandy would yell at him, 'Bad back, my [fanny].' Then when Koufax would strike him out, Roberto would yell at him, 'Bad elbow, my [posterior].'"

Clemente had his personal quirks.

"Roberto always wore long sleeves," Mota said. "I never saw him in short sleeves. Finally one day I said I had to ask him why. He showed me. He had a long scar running down his arm. He didn't tell me how it got there, but that was the reason he always wore long sleeves.

"He had these black bats he used, and he would shine them every day. He had style, and he knew it."

What comes shining through was Clemente's devotion -- to his homeland, his people, his teammates, to his craft.

"Roberto talked all the time about his parents, Melchor and Luisa," Mota said. "Every chance he got when he was interviewed [on radio and television], he sent them a message. He used to bring his parents to Pittsburgh, and he was so proud to show them around.

"He was a very strong individual, physically and mentally. [Former Dodgers general manager] Al Campanis loved Clemente; Al talked about Roberto all the time. Al signed him for the Dodgers [in 1954], but they couldn't keep him. There was a rule at the time that he had to stay on the big club, and the Pirates were able to get him."

Clemente was pirated in the Rule 5 Draft on Nov. 22, 1954, after Brooklyn, finding no roster openings, had been unable to hide its young gem in the farm system.

"Playing for the Pirates, he got a chance to be himself, to be a leader -- and he was a great leader," Mota said. "The Dodgers had so many players at the time. It was a big break for Pittsburgh."

From Honus Wagner to Willie Stargell to Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates have a long, rich history. But there was only one Clemente.

"He was a great player, great man -- first-class all the way," Mota said. "He showed us all how to act, with pride and dignity. That's why I admired him so much. Roberto was one of a kind. Our Jackie."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for
Read More: Los Angeles Dodgers, Manny Mota, Roberto Clemente