ROBERTO CLEMENTE DIED ON NEW YEAR'S EVE, 1972, when a small plane carrying Clemente, four other men, and 16,000 pounds of aid bound for earthquake-wracked Nicaragua disappeared into the waters off Clemente's native Puerto Rico. This made it that much more peculiar when, a few years ago, Clemente started showing up on the subway in New York City. Not the man himself, of course, but his image, which turned up in the subway advertising for a sketchy-seeming law firm: sketchy in that the phone number listed on their se habla Espanol-minded advertisements was, confoundingly and perhaps a little offensively, 1-800-MARGARITA. Straphangers were left to ponder the connection between a baseball player and the cash settlements (hard against Clemente's image, in garish red numbers) won by the aforementioned ambulance-chasing concern for victims of lead paint or asbestos. So what, exactly, was the great Roberto Clemente doing there on the 4/5/6, besides corkscrewing through the follow-through of his still-familiar right-handed swing, wildly wide of the multiple contexts in which he existed during his life.
Roberto Clemente is a sainted name and image explained partly, at best, by the anodyne words and small-print statistical code on the back of his baseball cards, or those on his plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It says something about the law firm's shamelessness that they would choose a "this is what those guys like, right?" phone number while hitching a ride with so significant a figure, but it also says something about their canniness. Clemente is a symbol of altruism, righteousness, and Boricua pride potent enough — or so our personal-injury lawyers must have hoped — to add something fine to their shabby subway come-on. The very permanence and vagueness of Clemente's legacy — he was good and he was great and that is about that, forever and ever amen — makes such a tacky tribute possible.
Two generations after his last game as a baseball player and his disappearance into the Caribbean, Clemente endures in the alternately flattering and flattening forbidden zone of baseball mythos: as a name on Major League Baseball's annual citizenship award, as the subject of a statue outside Pittsburgh's PNC Bank Park, as a Spanish-speaking stand-in for Jackie Robinson, baseball's first truly great Latin American star, and finally as something of a cipher. The only player for whom the Baseball Hall of Fame waived its traditional five-year waiting period — Clemente was voted into the Hall in a landslide in 1973, mere months after his death — the Pirates' star found himself entombed in baseball's pantheon when he still had plenty of life due to him. He has been locked in there ever since, his goodnesses and greatnesses sanitized and held in air-conditioned suspension in Cooperstown.
And so Clemente still exists: his name is on the 304-acre sports campus he built near his hometown of Carolina, in Puerto Rico, and his name is on the pedestrian bridge that fans cross to reach PNC Bank Park on game-days. But, more broadly, the sentimental way in which he has been remembered has made him, if not forgettable, certainly a bit less human: one of the game's household saints.