Since the third grade, Pittsburgh filmmaker Richard Rossi has carried in his heart the story of his childhood sports hero, baseball great Roberto Clemente.
In a film written and directed by Rossi, Clemente's story of commitment, loyalty and devotion provides a counterpoint to today's baseball culture of headline-grabbing players suspected of steroid abuse.
"Baseball's Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories" makes its New York premiere Aug. 31 at the Fingerlakes Mall movie theater in Aurelius.
"The '21 Clemente Stories' are told using the 21 letters in Roberto Walker Clemente. The first 'R' stands for 'rookie and the last 'E' for 'earthquake,' referring to the Nicaraguan quake that led to Clemente's death on an aid mission in 1972," Rossi said in an email.
As a boy, Rossi sat in Three Rivers Stadium and watched Clemente's offensive skill and powerful bat advance the Pittsburgh Pirates to two appearances in a World Series during the right-fielder 18-season career, from 1955 to 1972.
As a Pirate, Clemente was honored as an all-star and a Golden Glove recipient 12 times. He was a four-time batting champ and, in 1960, was the first Hispanic major-league ballplayer to win as a starter in a World Series. He was also the first Hispanic player to win Most Valuable Player recognition in 1966, then again in 1971 when he came away with a World Series MVP nod.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Clemente played baseball as a teen before signing with a Triple-A subsidiary of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers at 17. He'd play in Canada for a time, before his career would take him in 1955 to the city that claimed his standout playing for the next 18 years.
"I was captured by the grace and magic of Clemente," Rossi stated. "He caught fly balls at the wall and turned to throw a strike with his cannon arm to catcher Manny Sanguillen to nail a runner trying to tag from third."
The times were good to Clemente, he married and had three children and played winter ball in his home country, but the era was tinged with toughness too when some of the day's sports media dogged him with racist comparisons to other players.
"The Pittsburgh press mocked his Puerto Rican accent," Rossi pointed out. "When he made a sensational play, they called him the 'Puerto Rican hot dog' and showed a picture of a chihuahua. If a white player like Pete Rose made a great play, they called him 'Charlie Hustle.'"
Clemente could have made more money and changed teams during his career, Rossi said, but didn't because loyalty to his team and fans came first. He claimed his 3,000th hit as a Pirate, just months before traveling on the ill-fated New Year's Eve aid mission. The plane he boarded was loaded with supplies for Nicaraguan earthquake victims and crashed into the ocean shortly after take off.
"He wasn't in the game for money, but for love," Rossi said. "In an age in which baseball is so tainted with cheating and dishonesty, kids need a true hero."
The right-fielder was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
The feature film was a labor of love for Rossi and the cadre of actors and technicians who volunteered their time and donated their services to the project.
"I want people to learn about Clemente, to feel the emotion of the true love he felt for his family, his fans, his team, and the disadvantaged poor he died helping," Rossi said.