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Friday, March 6, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Documentary Is True

Seattle Times Television Critic

Television review "Clemente," 9 p.m. Sunday, Fox Sports Northwest.

In the book of baseball mythology, Roberto Clemente belongs to that pantheon shared by Thurman Munson and Lou Gehrig: marvelous athletes cut down at the height of fame by jealous fate.

The danger for biographers is the temptation to turn such men into one-dimensional gods. "Pride of The Yankees" and Phil Rizzuto's moving funeral tribute to Munson notwithstanding, unmitigated praise often has the perverse effect of erecting a barrier between fans and players.

"Clemente," which airs on Fox Sports Northwest at 9 p.m. Sunday, avoids this mistake. A quarter-century has passed since the Pittsburgh Pirates' right fielder died in a plane crash while on a relief mission to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. That's enough time to appreciate a man's complexity alongside the statistics verifying his greatness.

Fox's one-hour documentary accomplishes both tasks easily and entertainingly. It's a good show to watch with youngsters who may not know what made No. 21 so fabulous as a competitor or so critical in the context of sports history. Deservedly, he was the second baseball star after Jackie Robinson to be pictured on a U.S. postal stamp.

Clemente was, as narrator Jimmy Smits tells us, a man who transcended the game "not because of how he died, but because of how he lived." True enough, though this summary from Puerto Rico Sen. Ruth Fernandez is even better: "Everybody looked rumpled next to Roberto Clemente."

Slim, lithe and regal in repose, Clemente's looks belied his power. He batted .317 over 18 seasons with the Bucs and got his 3,000th hit in his last major league at-bat. He won 12 straight Gold Gloves and his two World Series performances were outstanding. To back the numbers, there's plenty of archival footage.

But as we're also told, Clemente's majestic bearing was ill-received in the early years by a press that wanted him to play the clown-like Hispanic. He was quoted phonetically - "I heet the ball" was a sad commonplace in newspaper stories - and his lack of English was construed as stupidity.

He faced another obstacle. Clemente was dark-skinned, a distinction unfamiliar to this son of a Puerto Rican sugar cane farmer until his arrival in the United States. Originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Clemente was taken right before the 1954 season by wily Pittsburgh GM Branch Rickey, the former Dodger executive who put Jackie Robinson in the majors.

Clemente's early years were harsh. He experienced the Jim Crow mandates of spring training in Florida as well as the de facto segregation of late 1950s America, and his agony was compounded by language limitations. This part of "Clemente" features commentary by contemporaries such as Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Tony Oliva and Orlando Cepeda.

He is not, however, made a martyr. Foibles like hypochondria are noted as a contributing factor to the perception that he sometimes jaked it. His strained relationship with some fellow players and with manager Danny Murtaugh is related impartially.

The end of "Clemente" deals with his growing sense of world citizenry and Latin American issues. About the only area left unexplored is family life. It would have been nice to know more about this side of a man who, in his very last interview, said his one remaining dream was to see three young sons grow up.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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