On Clemente Award day, a former teammate and young admirer reflect on the Hall of Famer’s life and legacy
By Jerry Crasnick
Manny Sanguillen and Starling Marte are separated by 44 years and disparate baseball backgrounds. Sanguillen is one of 65 players in major-league history who were born in Panama, while Marte represents a nearly 800-strong contingent from the Dominican Republic. But they’re linked by an appreciation for the game’s traditions and a reverence for the great Roberto Clemente.
Sanguillen, 76, was one of Clemente’s closest friends. In 1971, they won a World Championship in Pittsburgh and played together on the first all-black starting lineup in baseball history. Sanguillen’s world forever changed when Clemente died in a plane crash off the Puerto Rican coast on a humanitarian mission on Dec. 31, 1972.
Marte, 32, only knows Clemente from scoreboard tributes and the Clemente statue outside PNC Park, his professional home from 2012 through 2019. But he developed an appreciation for Clemente’s larger-than-life persona from the stories handed down by Sanguillen and other Pirates from the 1960s and ‘70s.
Major League Baseball today announced Adam Wainwright as the recipient of the 2020 Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the MLB player who “best represents the game through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.’’ Amid the Clemente tributes, Sanguillen and Marte are similarly committed to remembering the Hall of Famer’s life and legacy. They recently sat down with the MLBPA for a Clemente-centered, Spanish-language video chat, which has been translated to English.
MANNY SANGUILLEN: Starling is like my son. When I first met him and saw him play, I told him, ‘Starling, you’re going to be a superstar in the major leagues.’ That’s what I told him the first time I met him. The way he played the game and the amount of talent he had early on. Now, people know who he is and the value he brings. Even to this day, he gets better and better. He’s the kind of player that can help a young team like Miami get better. They say baseball is a kid’s game, but it’s also a big industry and Starling has succeeded in both. That’s the blessing that God gave Starling, and he will always protect you. I hope you continue with your success so that you can win countless World Series rings.
STARLING MARTE: It was an honor to meet someone like Manny. In my heart, he’s a Hall of Famer. It’s rare to meet someone who knows so much about baseball. Someone who understands people and likes to talk, because I like to talk. People like that can help. You learn from them; you can improve the way you play. Thank God, we still have a great relationship. To this day he calls me and gives me tips and the next day I’ll try to implement those. He’s always helped me and has always been there for me. I can tell him anything and he’ll always have a heartfelt response. Any player should be and would be honored to have someone like Manny on their side.
MANNY SANGUILLEN: Roberto always told me, ‘Manny, since you’re not a guy that likes to always be out partying, I want you to be my friend.’ That’s because he was never out partying, ever. He would always say, ‘Manny, we are Latinos. There aren’t many of us, so I need to stay healthy and play well, so that one day there are tons of us. One day there will be many Panamanians and Puerto Ricans and they’ll end up in the Hall of Fame.’ He had all of that inside of him. That’s who he was.
STARLING MARTE: Before arriving in Pittsburgh, I only ever heard the stories people told of him. How he was within the Latino community. How he had helped Latinos in any and every aspect. He was compared to such greatness for someone in that the time period. But after I arrived, I got to know Manny and bunch of other players that always spoke so highly of Roberto, and I’ve also crossed paths with his sons. But honestly, it’s very emotional when you hear about this great man from these people who knew him in that era. It’s awesome to be able to relive his presence through their stories and see their emotions and feelings towards him. People need that love again. When you lose a person of that stature and character in that era, people are still hurt by it.
STARLING MARTE: Since I was in the minors up through when I broke into the league, a lot of people would tell me I played similar to the way Roberto did. I had some of the same attributes. The way I would catch the ball, when I’d throw the ball, they would be reminded of Roberto. They would joke that there was a second coming of Roberto Clemente playing for the Pirates again. It was a great honor to even be mentioned within the same sentence as Roberto.
MANNY SANGUILLEN: He was always thankful to Jackie Robinson, who opened the doors for people like us. So he always wanted to follow in Jackie’s footsteps and sacrifice what he needed to in order to help future generations of Latino players. He was the kind of guy that took care of himself. Everything he did was for Puerto Rico and all of Latin-America. Nowadays, I can’t even count how many Latinos are playing in the majors.
He would always go to Santo Domingo because it was somewhat close to Puerto Rico, so the other guy he always told me about was Juan Marichal. He told me he was a sincere and honest man and that he strived to do the same for other Latinos. Marichal was similar to Clemente. Roberto always told me that once he was done with the Pirates that he hoped he would end up in the American League so that he could continue hitting as a DH and hopefully break Ty Cobb’s hit record.
He was the kind of guy that would motivate you. He told me before the World Series that we were going to win it. There was something about him that motivated you. He would always say a prayer for his team, his mom and all of the players around the league. That’s how much he cared.
STARLING MARTE: Of course. It can act as a motivation, like it was for me. They should learn about what he did in that era and the culture he built. We’re Latinos and wherever we are, the culture follows. It’s important to understand that. When you learn about Roberto, Latino or not, you keep his name and story alive. I think we should strive to continue doing that.
MANNY SANGUILLEN: Yes, I remember we went out with a group of people. Neighbors, friends, all out on a boat. The waves were so high and people would jump in the water and swim down with their scuba gear 20-30 feet into the water. They helped me put on the gear and I jumped in and I swam down and when I got deep enough, I saw these massive sharks and I immediately came back up. We were out there for a long time. The current was so strong, you would’ve thought it was a tsunami. It was tough for all of us Latinos. One thing I’ll never forget is that Roberto was so afraid of flying. He would always tell me, ‘Manny, I have this feeling that when I fly, the plane is going to crash.’ And look, it’s terrible, but it’s what happened.
STARLING MARTE: That has always been a fight to get that number retired. In Pittsburgh, they have it hung in left field. Each year they talk about how he deserves it for everything he has done not only for the Latinos but for baseball, but they haven’t done it. I think it would be one of the greatest things the league could do, retiring his number in honor of a baseball great.
MANNY SANGUILLEN: Look, I’m wearing number 21 right now in honor of Roberto. I also have on the cap of the Kansas City Monarchs in honor of Jackie Robinson, who had his number retired. Like Starling said, we all want number 21 retired because that would be such a tremendous moment for all of us. I’m confident that the Players Association, the players around the league and all the baseball fans will do enough to have his number retired. He deserves it because he gave his life for (people) he’d never met.
He was an honest man who helped the poor, not only of Nicaragua but everywhere. He’s in heaven because in my eyes, Roberto was an angel that God placed here on this earth not only to play baseball, but to help mankind. I thank God that I had the opportunity to know him because he took care of me. He was like my big brother. When I first arrived in the big leagues, he called me in my hotel room and told me ‘Don’t leave yet because we’ll both go out and eat.’
MANNY SANGUILLEN: He always had that mentality that we’re all the same. There was no difference between black and white. One time we were in San Francisco and he took me to the tailor where Juan Marichal, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey all went. He had 12 suits made and he told the tailor to make me six. He told me ‘You deserve it Manny, because you’re a big leaguer like me.’ That’s the moment I knew he was the kind of guy that wanted to help people improve, advance and succeed in their life.
STARLING MARTE: I think Roberto would be disappointed with what’s going on in today’s society. He was the kind of guy that was fighting against all the hatred and injustice that’s happening today. He would be disappointed to see where we’re at. Today, current players are still fighting, though. We’re using his spirit. Even though he’s not here today, it’s important to continue to fight for equality and justice, the way he would have.