Remembering Roberto Clemente, 40 years later

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Not a New Year’s Eve goes by where I don’t, for at least a few minutes, remember Roberto Clemente. For it was New Year’s Eve 1972 — 40 years ago today — when Clemente died a hero, trying to airlift relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Clemente was truly heroic and brave, not because he was forced into some dire situation. He was heroic precisely because he didn’t have to face anything at all if he didn’t want to. He was a man of means and status and he could have ushered in 1973 in comfortable circumstances in his native Puerto Rico, writing checks to a relief fund to help those earthquake victims.  He could have organized a benefit.  But he didn’t. He sent on relief supplies himself, and when he realized that some of supplies he was sending to Managua were being pilfered by crooked officials, Clemente got on board the next flight himself to ensure that they got to those who needed them the most.  It was the last decision he’d ever make.

The plane took off a little after 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve with five on board. The plane — overloaded and in poor mechanical condition to begin with — encountered problems almost immediately.  The pilot tried to return to the airport but it was too late. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about a mile from the coast, killing all aboard. Clemente’s body was never recovered.

As you prepare to welcome the new year, take a few moments to learn more about Roberto Clemente. Not just the circumstances of his death and the broad arc of his career, each of which are well known. Learn about the weird stuff. The not-so-great stuff. The funny stuff. Clemente may have the earned status of a hero, but he was really interesting — sometimes even kinda annoying — beyond that. We have this understandable tendency to turn heroes into saints, but knowing all of the little and random things about Clemente makes him far more human than we typically think of him, and that in turn makes his heroism seem all the greater. Greater precisely because it wasn’t his duty to do what he did. It was his choice.

(Note: some of these thoughts and words first appeared in a post three years ago. I kinda liked how I said it then, so I’m plagiarizing myself a bit).

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.