If you’re old enough, you remember where you were when President John F. Kennedy was shot, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, and when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11.
But I also remember where I was on Dec. 31, 1972. That was the night Major League Baseball star Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash.
Celebrities die all the time — sometimes even in something as dramatically tragic as an aviation disaster. But something made this different for me.
I was a college freshman as well as a rookie, part-time journalist, conscripted to spend that New Year’s Eve alone in the newsroom at the Santa Barbara News-Press.
My assignment was to man the sports desk for the first time in my short life. Sports editor Dave Kohl put me on the dreaded holiday duty since I was too young to drink champagne — legally, at least — and too low on the totem pole to whine about it.
Adding insult to sobriety was the fact that the sports pages were already produced. All that was needed was my green light to start the presses at midnight.
“Just monitor the wire-service machines in case something major happens,” Kohl said between a few puffs on his cigar. “But nothing in sports ever happens on New Year’s Eve, so don’t touch a thing. Read a comic book or something.”
I was dozing off a few hours later, using my textbook as a pillow instead of a study aid for an upcoming final, when I was shocked into consciousness by a shrieking cadence of bells.
“What the?” You mumbled. “Is it New Year’s already?”
The clock told me no. Midnight was still a few hours away. The high-pitched bells on the wire-service machines were alerting me to some major news breaking in the world.
I got to The Associated Press newswire just in time to read the final words of the first paragraph that the machine was typing onto its roll of paper:
“BULLETIN — SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A plane carrying Roberto Clemente, star outfielder of baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates, crashed after takeoff here tonight.”
I’d rooted for the Los Angeles Dodgers my entire short life, which made me no fan of Clemente nor of the Pittsburgh team that he’d led to the 1971 World Series championship. I was wondering if I should just return to my slumber and leave it for the hungover sports crew of the next day.
And then more details rolled out of the chattering teletype.
Clemente, a 15-time All-Star, was trying to rush relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He had insisted on joining five others aboard the rickety, Douglas DC-7 cargo plane after learning that profiteers were taking the food and clothing before they could reach the victims.
This wasn’t his job. It wasn’t even his country. But out of the goodness of his heart, the Puerto Rican baseball superstar stepped up to ease the suffering of those in desperate need.
Hold the Presses
I called down to the composing room and risked my own short life by delivering the news to a grizzled, crotchety foreman.
“I have to remake the sports front,” I said, lowering my teenage voice a few octaves in a feeble attempt to assert command. “I’ll send down the new layout dummy and copy as soon as I can.”
“Who the hell are you?!?” the foreman growled.
Former UC Santa Barbara ace Dillon Tate has been one of the top relief pitchers for the American League’s Baltimore Orioles. (Baltimore Orioles photo)
“I’m the guy in charge of the sports section tonight,” I squeaked with authority. And I was also now a Roberto Clemente fan.
Major League Baseball considers its best award to be the one named after the late, great Clemente. It has nothing to do with the 12 Gold Gloves or four National League batting championships he won during his 18-year career. As the Rev. Martin Luther King might explain, it has everything to do with the content of his character.
Dos Pueblos High graduate James McCann, now a catcher for the New York Mets, was an All-Star himself in 2019.
Former UC Santa Barbara pitcher Dillon Tate may become one himself some day. He’s having the best season of his young MLB career with four wins, four saves, 15 holds and an earned run average of 2.67 as a reliever with the Baltimore Orioles.
McCann and Tate are also their teams’ nominees for the Roberto Clemente Award, which “is bestowed annually to the player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”
They are today’s Roberto Clemente.
The winner of the award will be selected by a panel which includes MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, representatives from the four MLB-affiliated television networks, MLB.com, and Clemente’s three children.
Fans can vote for their choice at MLB.com/Clemente21 until the conclusion of the regular season on Oct. 5. The winner of the fans’ ballot will count as one vote on the panel.
McCann had soldiered through his own, trying New Year’s Eve in 2017. He and wife, Jessica, spent that holiday night at Vanderbilt Children’s Neonatology Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Nashville. Their twin sons were fighting for their lives after having been born 10 weeks prematurely on Dec. 6.
James McCann with wife Jessica and their twin sons, Christian and Kane. (McCann Family photo)
“We spent almost two months at the hospital,” McCann said. “Having your sons born 10 weeks early, and spending seven-plus weeks in the NICU, does put life into perspective.
“You realize how precious life is. Just being Dad, coming home at night and seeing those two boys smiling whether you’ve gone 2-for-4 or 0-for-4, is a special feeling that puts everything in a whole different light.”
Christian and Kane are now both healthy, baseball-loving boys. Their parents, however, have never forgotten the support they received during their seven fretful weeks in NICU. They have donated hundreds of monetary gift cards to families who are going through the same process, visiting many of them to offer encouragement and advice during their own NICU stays.
They made a pact during their own ordeal to target two specific holidays. On Mother’s Day, they donate to the moms at the NICU in whatever city McCann is playing. They do the same for NICU dads on Father’s Day.
They added dates to their schedule of benevolence to include MLB’s Opening Day and other holidays.
“The Lord just placed it on our hearts that this is where we wanted to continually give back,” McCann said.
McCann, who previously played for the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox, even donated a suite for a Mets game to some of the nurses he met during a hospital visit.
He has volunteered for many community events since coming to New York two years ago. They’ve included the annual Battle of the Badges baseball game between New York City’s police and firefighters and the “Moment with Mom” initiative to fight breast cancer
Catcher James McCann and the New York Mets lead the National League’s East Division. (New York Mets photo)
McCann, the son of Goleta’s Carla and Jim McCann, played for the Goleta Valley South Little League All-Stars two decades ago.
He threw his support behind a team from Nolensville, Tennessee, that had advanced to last month’s Little League World Series. He and his family have made their home in neighboring Franklin, Tennessee.
“I always wanted to play in the Little League World Series,” McCann said. “That was the dream as a 10-year-old. Watching these 12-year-olds playing on TV, I wanted to play there.”
He recorded a video to let the Little Leaguers know he was rooting for them. He also sent them gift bags that included gift cards to a sporting goods company, sports sunglasses and baseball socks.
“I thought I might as well let them know that somebody’s watching them,” McCann said. “I know how cool that would have been as a kid, to hear from a big leaguer while on that run, so I wanted to make that become a reality for them.”
Nolensville advanced to the United States final before losing to Hawai’i, which went on to win the Little League World Series title. McCann hopes to arrange an off-season get-together with them at a local batting cage.
“I’m proud to be from the same area as them,” he said.
Tate Hits for the Cycle
Tate, the ace starter for UCSB’s NCAA Regional team of 2015, got rolling with his own bit of philanthropy two years ago while riding his bicycle with cousin Johannes Boyd.
He steered his bike to a baseball diamond at West Baltimore’s Carroll Park after spotting a gaggle of kids playing there. He introduced himself to the children, who were mostly 6 and 7 years old, and returned several days later to teach them the game.
Dillon Tate and the Baltimore Orioles mascot entertain a group of kids at Tate’s Baseball Academy camp. (Baltimore Orioles photo)
It became a serendipitous moment for Tate. He and his cousin soon developed Baseball Academia Corp., a nonprofit organization that mentors inner-city youth. He said his journey to Major League Baseball began with the guidance he received as a young player.
“I felt like I always had a good exposure when it came to coaches, mentors at the Urban Youth Academy,” he said. “I think that’s something I wanted to continue, at least, as I got further in my baseball career.
“For me, it’s just paying it forward. That’s what I had, so I want to give that to the next group of kids.”
He and Boyd bring a group of their Baseball Academy kids to Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards once a month. Tate recruits several of his fellow Orioles teammates to speak to the kids. They also offer their expertise at youth baseball practices in underprivileged areas and talk about their own youth experiences.
“I’d like to see more kids who look like me playing the game, or just getting them to understand that you have what it takes to play the game,” Tate said. “For some kids, it’s tough just because it’s an expensive sport.
“Getting your feet in the door or getting something off the ground with baseball can be difficult with some families where money may be tight. Just showing them that there’s a way to get it done, even if you don’t have a lot, is one of the main things that I want to preach to them.”
Tate’s own prospects, seeded at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, blossomed at UCSB. He ranks second in the Gaucho record books with a career ERA of 2.15. He also became the highest Gaucho ever drafted when the Texas Rangers took him with the No. 4 picks in 2015.
He knows many helped him along his way, including coaches, teachers, friends, and especially his parents, Lenora and Anthony Tate.
“My parents had just a few rules growing up,” Tate said. “Treat others the way you want to be treated, work hard and always do the right thing.”
It is the Tate, and McCann … and Clemente way.
Former UCSB pitching ace Dillon Tate mentors children at his Baseball Academia camp in Baltimore. (Baltimore Orioles photo)