Every year during the World Series baseball bestows the ultimate Good Guy Award on a major-league ball player who best evokes the spirit of Roberto Clemente in helping the less fortunate.
Clemente was the Hall of Fame outfielder who died at 38 in a crash of a too-old DC-7 that was filled with food and medical supplies he was rushing to Nicaraguans after the 1972 earthquake all but leveled the capital – and capi-tol of Managua.
The next year the Roberto Clemente Award was introduced, to be voted on by media and fans who consider a nominee from every major-league team. This is the big leagues of good deeds.
And this is the first year there are co-winners: Jimmy Rollins, the 5-foot-8 shortstop of the Philadelphia Phillies and Paul Konerko, the retiring first baseman/designated hitter of the Chicago White Sox.
Rollins has had a bittersweet season at 35. He hit 17 home runs and scored well in the most significant baseball metric of the metric era: WAR. He’s 3.9 Wins Above Replacement. But his team finished last.
Rollins has been National League MVP and has a world championship ring, but the Clemente Award has special meaning to him. “I did something important in the game that had nothing to do with baseball but everything to do with helping others.”
Kurt Vonnegut once lamented that one of the main flaws in our society is that we “serve evil too openly and good too secretly.”
If he was right, Clemente would seem a case in point. The reporters of his day recall Clemente as being prickly and temperamental. Few had any idea what he was doing to reach out to children and disabled people in his homeland of Puerto Rico and then, in death, to a neighboring people in trouble.
“He was always trying to help people,” said his widow, Vera Clemente. “He would help people on the side of the road, people he didn’t know, if they had car trouble. He did it from his heart. He never talked about it.”
Likewise, the media has said little about the Jimmy Rollins Family Foundation that promotes the health and welfare of children. Rollins, 35, travels to schools in the Philadelphia area to encourage children to eat what’s good for their bodies. He tells them about the dangers of preservatives and other man-created chemicals in the brightly beckoning boxes on the shelves.
The Clemente Award does not necessarily go to the ballplayer who gives the most to charity but to one who also gives heavily of his time, as Clemente himself did.
Rollins and his wife started the Johari and Jimmy Rollins Center for Animal Rehabilitation. The couple is also active in raising money for the Arthritis Foundation, after he began suffering from arthritis in his elbow.
Konerko and Jim Thome eight years ago founded the Bring Me Home Foundation to raise funds and other support for foster care children and families.
Konerko, like Rollins, had a season of mixed feelings. He hit .207 and was captain of a losing team, but during his farewell tour he learned his No. 14 will be retired along with him.
He hit .279 with 439 homers in 18 seasons. He played for a World Series champion in 2005. In accepting his share of the Clemente Award, Konerko said, “This caps off a special final season for me.”
Hopefully it will seem even more special as time goes on. The Clemente Award will mean more to most of its recipients than the brass trophies and diamond rings they have won while performing before the public eye.