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When Steve Blass was pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had a vision of what teammate Roberto Clemente would do following his playing days.
“I always thought Roberto would become the governor of Puerto Rico, and that Vera would make a great first lady,” Blass said. “He was that popular in Puerto Rico and cared so much for his country.”
Sadly, it never came to fruition. Clemente, the Hall of Fame outfielder, died in a plane crash off the coast of San Juan on New Year’s Eve in 1972 while attempting to transport supplies to Nicaragua, a country that had been ravaged by an earthquake.
Vera Clemente died Saturday in San Juan. She was 78. While the cause had not been announced, she had been in ill health in recent months.
Though it has been nearly 47 years since Clemente’s death, Pittsburgh never forgot Vera.
And Vera Clemente never forgot Pittsburgh and the Pirates.
She made frequent visits to the city and annually attended Roberto Clemente Day, first at Three Rivers Stadium and then at PNC Park, always receiving a warm ovation. This year marked the first time she missed the ceremony.
On Sunday, Blass reminisced about Vera Clemente. It was clear what impressed Blass most was her inner strength.
“It couldn’t have been easy for her, losing her husband and raising three young boys by herself,” said Blass, who retired as a Pirates’ broadcaster at the end of last season. “I never sensed any bitterness, though, on her part. She never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. She went on to raise three great sons and doing so much good with her charity work with the (Roberto Clemente Foundation) both in Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh.
“She was always gracious with her time to always come back to Pittsburgh and be there anytime the Pirates marked any anniversaries or paid any tributes to Roberto. She never lost that connection to the city.”
Retired Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen considered Clemente his best friend.
Sanguillen posted a tribute to Clemente on Twitter that read:
“Doña Vera is in heaven, reunited with Roberto. Vera and Roberto dedicated their lives to helping others, now we must do as they taught us. Encircle their family with love, prayers, support and guidance. God blessed us with Roberto & Vera, we will follow their lead & bless others.”
Vera and Roberto married in 1964 following the 10th season of his 19-year career. During the ensuing nine years, the Clementes spent their springs and summers living in Green Tree before going home to Puerto Rico for the off-season.
Blass and his wife, Karen, became good friends with the Clementes over the years. One of Blass’ favorite memories of the couple is when Roberto was presented with car during a ceremony in New York for winning the MVP award for the Pirates’ World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles in 1971.
“I’ll always remember the pictures,” Blass said. “Roberto was so handsome, and Vera was so beautiful. They looked like they had come straight out of central casting. They were just a wonderful couple.”