VILLA EL CARMEN – When Roberto Clemente Jr., son of the Hall of Fame baseball legend who died in a plane crash while bringing relief aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972, first stepped onto the field at the modest ballpark named after his father in Masaya, he had a ghostly flashback to his youth.
“Going to the stadium last week reminded me of going to the Sixto Escobar Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I swear when I walked in and saw the base paths, I saw dad running the bases,” Clemente Jr., 45, told The Nica Times during a visit to Nicaragua this week. “It was a very special and weird feeling. It was very emotional for me, because he loved that stadium (in Puerto Rico). It was a special place for him and the people loved him and he loved them back. And that’s the way the whole thing started, and that’s how it ended.”
Clemente’s brilliant baseball career for the Pittsburgh Pirates ended tragically on an ill-fated humanitarian trip destined for Nicaragua. But for Clemente Jr., a former Yankees and ESPN Spanish-language broadcaster who manages several baseball charity foundations in his family’s name, the work in Nicaragua is only just beginning.
Following his trip here last weekend, Clemente Jr., a former minor league standout who suffered a career-ending back injury shortly before his scheduled Major League debut with the Baltimore Orioles in 1989, got a taste of the country that his father had fallen in love with 40 years ago.
After a few days of visiting here, he didn’t need much convincing to rekindle his father’s legacy in Nicaragua.
On Jan. 18, Clemente Jr. agreed to join the board of directors of the International Baseball Academy of Central America (IBACA), which will be Nicaragua’s first baseball academy. Then Clemente went a step further, and convinced his friend, Nicaraguan Major League pitcher Vicente Padilla, to join the board also.
“It is such a pleasure for me to be part of the board of directors of IBACA and to be able to open some doors for the youth in Nicaragua,” Clemente said. “Obviously there is a great connection between Nicaragua and the Clemente family.”
Clemente’s enthusiasm for the aspiring baseball academy also gives a special feeling to the rest of the IBACA board, which already includes former Major League greats Reggie Smith, Dave Stewart and Brad Lesley, as well as former amateur player Roger Keeling (NT, Jan. 8, 2010). With $400,000 in funding already raised, IBACA – a registered nonprofit organization – hopes the additions of Clemente and Padilla will help them raise the other half-million dollars needed to break ground in the coming months on its 11-acre lot at Gran Pacifica, a residential development project on the Pacific coast.
“It means everything having these guys onboard,” said IBACA board member and vice president Bob Oettinger. “Padilla is a national hero in this country, and the Clemente legacy here is incredible. Roberto is a very dynamic guy and having him get involved is tremendously important to us. He has tremendous contacts both in the sports world and the business world, so we are counting on him.”
Young Nicaraguan baseball prospects, such as 17-year-old Kenny Alegria, are also counting on him.
Alegria, a power-hitting second basemen from an impoverished Managua barrio, gets up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to jog the streets of the capital before returning home to take batting practice with his dad, hitting a bucket of tattered balls into a net, or swinging an axe handle into a tire.
Alegria says he gets his passion for baseball from his father, a taxi driver who used to play shortstop in the Nicaraguan amateur league, and his swing from watching former Red Sox slugger Manny Ramírez on TV.
And he’s done a pretty good job emulating Manny’s swing so far; Alegria, who won the Nicaraguan Youth League Triple Crown at age 14, won IBACA’s youth-league home run derby last October.
For winning the national derby, Alegria got to travel to the United States last month to participate in an international home run derby at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field, where he managed to knock two dingers into the bleachers.
While Alegria aims to play for Managua’s Boer in this year’s first division baseball league, his bigger hope is to enter the baseball academy next year and try to catch the eye of a Major League scout.
“I hope to have the blessing to go farther with baseball, to make the AAA or the Big Leagues,” the soft-spoken Alegria said.
At IBACA, the enthusiasm about Kenny is mutual.
“Kenny personalizes what we are trying to do,” Oettinger told The Nica Times. “We have an interest in him and want to see him succeed. And we hope that he may be one of the first kids that we bring into the academy.”
The all-inclusive, residential baseball academy, which will also provide kids with education and English classes, will take a more humanistic approach than other team-affiliated academies in the Dominican Republic, Oettinger says.
Oettinger said that unlike the cutthroat Dominican academies, where coaches have only 30 days to decide whether to keep or release young players, the Nicaraguan academy will invest more time, training and education in each kid, so he has a better chance of success afterwards.
The IBACA board members don’t expect all the young players to become pros; only 11 Nicaraguan players have ever made it to the Major Leagues.
So that’s why it’s so important for the academy – which plans to start with 50 kids in phase one – to invest in their educations, so some of the kids can try to get baseball scholarships to U.S. colleges, Oettinger said.
“Each kid who leaves the academy is going to be in a better position educationally to pursue a career that wouldn’t have been available to that person before they came,” Oettinger said.
He added, “When we first started looking at this, it was a baseball project. But this is really a humanitarian project at this point.”
It’s that combination of humanitarianism and baseball – something that Roberto Clemente Sr. was so passionate about – that now allows his son to fulfill his father’s promise in Nicaragua.
“It means a lot to me to be able to come here and make a difference,” Clemente Jr. said. “It’s something that has made my mother very proud. And it gives me a very special feeling.”