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Roberto Clemente & his #21 on this New Year’s Eve

CABO ROJO, PR — On this day in 1972, everyone in Puerto Rico was doing what we are all doing, which is preparing for tonight’s countdown to midnight to bring in the new year. Every radio and television station is promoting music, interviews and reports on preparations and happenings throughout the island. Parents are setting out the clothes they want their family to wear to bring in the new year.

Many are still shopping for clothes, beer, wine, champaign, and the soft drinks for the kids. Every family must have some Coquito, our official Christmas drink. It’s like a better version of eggnog with some rum. That’s what I have been seeing for the past few days here in Puerto Rico; everyone focused on one thing, celebrating the end of the year, and bringing in the new year with our loved ones.

However, that was not the case for Roberto Clemente on December 31st, 1972. While his wife Vera was doing everything typical of a Puerto Rican wife and mother to bring in the new year for the Clemente family, Clemente was scurrying around San Juan making all the preparations for the final flight of taking badly needed supplies to the earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Clemente had made the cause of helping the victims of the earthquake in Nicaragua his personal cause. He had been going around the island hosting baseball clinics to raise money for Nicaragua. This last day of the year, when all families were planning where and how they were going to celebrate the new year, Clemente was too busy thinking and planning this, the last airplane lift to Nicaragua.

For this last trip he wanted to use a bigger plane which he contracted, a DC 7 plane that had recently been brought over from the airplane cemetery in Florida. The owner-pilot brought the plane over to Puerto Rico to work on several repairs it needed to get flight clearance from the FAA. He promised Clemente it would be ready for his flight. The plane received clearance just a day earlier and everything was set to go.

The rest we all know.

That DC 7 plane was overloaded with X Ray machines and many needed supplies. Many experts believe the merchandise was not properly placed and that the sounds others heard of the engine faltering upon takeoff could have been the cause of the plane crashing minutes after taking off and only reaching an altitude of 200 feet.

I just learned a very interesting bit of information. Apparently, the plane took off at approximately 9pm, ironically 2100 hours military time. That is another reminder to many who believed what Clemente had always been telling his wife Vera, that he was not going to be around this life too long. He told her this on more than one occasion (as told to me by his wife Vera).

His plane taking off at 21 hundred hours, the number of his uniform and the number that has become the most popular number for every Puerto Rican and for every Roberto Clemente fan, #21.

When the news was released that the plane carrying five occupants and Clemente crashed, the entire Island went silent.

As my wife and I will celebrate the new year tonight, we will also have a toast to our legend beyond baseball, the GREAT ONE, Roberto Clemente.

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