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Clemente's family helps to christen renamed bridge

Thursday, April 08, 1999

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With upwards of 5,000 people, the music of the band Latin Impulse and the usual assortment of festival hucksters, it was hard to steal a quiet moment on the closed Sixth Street Bridge last night.

    Related link:

Official Roberto Clemente Web site


But the family of the late Pirate great, Roberto Clemente - his wife, Vera, and sons, Luis and Roberto Jr. - managed to do just that as they huddled behind a makeshift stage with Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy.

Like three conspirators, the family Clemente pulled McClatchy into their circle, away from most prying eyes and ears.

"You know, we call you the fish that saved Pittsburgh," Luis whispered to McClatchy, referencing an old movie

There was a split second of silence, then peals of laughter from the foursome.

"I've been called a lot of things - might as well be a fish," McClatchy said, laughing and making like a fish.

Then McClatchy's tone turned more serious, as he looked at the sons of one of baseball's greatest players.

"I think," he told the family, "it's appropriate that the bridge that leads to the future of the Pirates be named after your dad."

Minutes later, the foursome moved onto the stage at the North Shore side of the bridge, and to the cheers of the crowd, pulled the cover from a plaque, signaling that the span was officially renamed Roberto Clemente Bridge.

"He gave it all to baseball, he gave it all to humanity, he gave it all to you, Pittsburgh," Roberto Clemente Jr., said before the plaque was unveiled. "Pittsburgh has been a part of our hearts. Now today, Roberto Clemente is part of Pittsburgh forever."

Vera Clemente - dressed in royal blue and perfectly gracious to the dozens of people just wanting to be near her - followed her son to the podium to say a simple, "thank you" to the Pittsburgh fans.

She was honored to be in Pittsburgh for the ceremony, she had said earlier, not seeming to realize that Pittsburgh was honored simply by her presence.

Before the ceremony began, she confided that the attention was gratifying, but nonetheless overwhelming and sometimes hard to believe.

She did not boast of her late husband's accomplishments - his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, his Most Valuable Player Awards. Rather, she left that to others who praised Clemente's career and his humanitarian efforts.

"I don't ever want there to be closure between Roberto Clemente and Pittsburgh," said Steve Blass, Clemente's teammate for seven seasons who is now a Pirates announcer.

The family's friends, such as Angie Gialloretto of Wilkins, were bursting before the ceremony as they huddled with Vera Clemente.

"Roberto's name should never die. He's a legend forever," said Gialloretto.

Gialloretto met the family when Roberto Jr. was a baby and Vera Clemente went to buy him shoes at Monroeville Mall. Gialloretto sold her Hush Puppies.

The little Italian woman and the lady from Puerto Rico hit it off immediately, Clemente explained.

"I used to open and close the mall," Clemente recalled.

The women burst out laughing, caught for a moment in happier times, times before Roberto Clemente's plane crashed on New Year's Eve 1972 on a humanitarian trip to Nicaragua.

But it was his death, his legend that brought thousands to the bridge last night.

Among them was Richard Zelenko of Burgettstown.

In 1972, Zelenko sat at a table with Roberto Clemente during a luncheon at the Allegheny Club. He got two souvenir bats, one for each of his young sons, Dan and Rick.

Clemente signed both, the only two he signed that day.

It was Dan, an artist turned arborist, who in December 1997 would turn that bat into a plaque for his basement game room.

His wife, Tammy, was so impressed, she called the Pirates. They in turn were so impressed, they called a bronzing company to cast a brass replica of Zelenko's plaque which was unveiled last night.

It includes the words Zelenko wrote to mark the 25th anniversary of Clemente's death:

Roberto Clemente. With his passionate heart and his God-given abilities, he lived his life like he played the game. He helped his Pirates win and his fellow man overcome. Roberto will always be remembered as Pittsburgh's adopted son. Thanks Great One.

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