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Biertempfel: One man's cause to canonize Roberto Clemente

| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 9:10 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A statue of Roberto Clemente looks towards the Pittsburgh and American flags as they fly above PNC Park during the Pirates' home opener Monday, March 31, 2014, on the North Shore.

As a 9-year-old Pirates fan in West View, Richard Rossi cried on that bleak New Year's morning in 1973 when he heard Roberto Clemente was dead.

Decades later, Rossi sat with his son in their home in Los Angeles and watched footage of a long-ago Pirates game. Clemente flashed on the television screen, slashing a hit and galloping around the bases.

“I started to weep again,” Rossi said.

Rossi explained to his son how Clemente was more than a Hall of Fame baseball player. Clemente died when his plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean as he tried to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Rossi told other stories he'd heard of how Clemente touched ordinary folks throughout his life.

“This guy cared about other people,” Rossi said. “This guy was a Christ-like guy.”

Although he moved across the country, Rossi, 51, never stopped rooting for the Pirates. He produced the independent film, “Baseball's Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories,” which was released last summer.

Now Rossi is trying to get Clemente into a different kind of hall of fame. He wants the Roman Catholic Church to canonize Clemente as a saint.

“Clemente had the ability to impact people spiritually,” said Rossi, a former evangelical minister. “The timing is right because Pope Francis is Latin American.

“Saints are people who gave back. That's what Roberto Clemente did. He was a great ballplayer, but he was also so much more than that.”

A few weeks ago, Rossi stated his case in letters to Pope Francis and the Most Rev. Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico. He has not gotten a response.

The first step in the canonization process is beatification, which requires a miracle caused by the intercession of the candidate. To achieve sainthood, a second miracle also must be proven.

Rossi is trying to collect stories about what he called a “healing touch” attributed to Clemente.

“We're getting more and more of them,” Rossi said.

Such as?

“I want to wait for more evidence before I get into more detail,” Rossi said. “Some people say the miraculous requirement should be overshadowed by the fact that his life was so Christ-like.”

Rossi said he has received several messages of support since he began his campaign, including a letter from Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“And there also are some people who think it's some kind of joke,” Rossi said.

If nothing else, Rossi's efforts will bring to light a personal side of Clemente that often is overlooked. Clemente was a deeply religious man whose humanitarian works extended beyond the final one that led to his death.

“I've never thought of him in terms of being a saint,” said Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, a devout Catholic whose father knew Clemente. “But he's somebody who lived his life serving others, really. So if it would happen, I wouldn't be terribly surprised by it.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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