Clemente Jr. thankful for PNC Park celebration to honor father

January 1st, 2023

Roberto Clemente Jr. makes his home in Pittsburgh, but he wasn’t supposed to be in town Saturday. He had plans to fly to Puerto Rico with his wife, Kailee, and the couple’s two young sons to observe the 50th anniversary of his father’s passing.

However, like thousands of other people, the Clementes had their flights canceled this week. Attempts to reschedule on Wednesday and Thursday were fruitless. No options were available.

Roberto Jr. and Kailee pivoted on short notice and organized a ceremony of remembrance that took place at the Clemente statue outside of PNC Park early Saturday afternoon. The tribute to the Pirates' Hall of Fame outfielder’s life and career wasn’t flashy or long, but it was respectful and emotional.

“We’re happy to be here in Pittsburgh today where my father made his mark,” Roberto Jr. told a gathering that included friends, family, Pirates officials and fans. “This city opened its arms to a kid from Puerto Rico many years ago, and the love affair between my family and Pittsburgh is still strong. We love this city. We love the people here. The way that you all have loved and respected our family over the years has been precious.”      

Roberto Clemente died on Dec. 31, 1972, at the age of 38, when the plane he boarded attempting to take relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. On Saturday, the memorial flower arrangement placed at the Clemente statue included the flags of Puerto Rico and Nicaragua and the number 50.

Clemente spent his entire 18-year career with the Pirates (1955-72). He won four National League batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, an NL MVP award and two World Series championships and was a 15-time All-Star. However, especially because “The Great One” lost his life serving others, he’s remembered as much for what he did off the field as on it.

“I want my sons to understand the impact that their grandfather made and the legacy he left for all of us to be better neighbors, better sons, better brothers and sisters,” said Roberto Jr., referring to Roberto III, 4, and 1-year-old Leo Roberto. “Unity was what he wanted. He wanted kids to be unified, to have hope and to grow up to be good citizens of their communities. That’s something we strive to do in his name.”

Kailee shared that Roberto III -- who is also called RC3 -- is mature for his age.

“He’s 4 1/2 going on 20,” she said with a smile. “He knows who his grandfather is. He knows how he lived his life. He knows how he died. We’re very up front and honest with him about that. At 4 years of age, he gets it. He really does.”

Had Roberto Jr. made it Puerto Rico with Kailee and the boys, they would have joined his brothers -- Luis and Ricky -- and their families for 50th anniversary ceremonies at the crash site at the beach in Loíza. He was willing to drive to Atlanta, or even Florida, if it meant being able to hop on a flight to Puerto Rico from there, but nothing worked.

“Fate kept us here because of the unbelievable occurrences that were happening with the airlines,” said Roberto Jr., who is 57. “It was just one of those things that was meant to be, I guess. Actually, now I’m very happy about it. To be able to celebrate the 50th anniversary here in Pittsburgh, as it turns out, is pretty special.”

Although Roberto Jr.’s voice cracked a few times during Saturday’s ceremony, he was remarkably composed, overall.

“I didn’t know how I was going to feel at this point. It’s been a roller coaster in terms of emotions,” he said. “Obviously, I miss my father deeply and the more I speak about him the more memories pop up. But for me, it’s a joy to listen to and read comments from people about how they feel 50 years after my father’s passing.

“His legacy is definitely still alive. He’s still making a difference in this world today. The mark that he left is still fresh.”

Joe Billetdeaux, the Pirates’ director of alumni affairs and a member of the organization since 1986, said: “I never met Roberto [the Hall of Famer], but I got to know his sons and his wife, Vera [who passed away in 2019] very well. They’re a big part of the Pirates’ family, they always have been, and they always will be. We’re so fortunate to have them. On behalf of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Roberto [Jr.], we love you."