By Jason Ruiz
August 13, 2014
Richard Rossi grew up in Pittsburgh emulating the iconic Pirates’ right fielder Roberto Clemente. He’d attend home games in the dollar seats at Forbes Field where he learned the idiosyncrasies of his childhood hero before replicating them as a youth on the baseball diamond. It was only natural that he cried his eyes out when Clemente perished in a plane crash in 1972, and now as a director and actor, that he becomes the first to dramatize the Puerto Rican superstar’s life.
Baseball’s Last Hero: The Roberto Clemente Story makes its Long Beach debut Saturday, August 16 when it’s screened at Los Altos Grace Brethren Church. The viewing is special to the city for two reasons: the film was shot almost entirely in Long Beach and after several months of tweaking, editing and test-runs in towns across America, this is the first time the finished product will be viewed by the public.
Rossi is hopeful that the community, whether they’re baseball fans or not, will be receptive to the story of the Hall of Fame player’s humanitarian legacy.
“I just really hope it touches the hearts the way it has in other cities,” Rossi said. “I hope people’s hearts are open to it. It’s a very emotional film. That’s the main thing, I want people to feel the love I have for him.”
Clemente was born in 1934 and played for a Brooklyn Dodgers minor league affiliate before being persuaded to leave the storied franchise to join the Pittsburgh Pirates for the prospect of more playing time. Rossi, who also acts in the film, played the part of the agent "Birddog," who persuaded Clemente to leave Brooklyn. Clemente made his Pittsburgh debut in 1955 and went on to be named to 12 all-star teams while leading the National League in batting four times, winning one most valuable player award and two World Series rings.
He died in a tragic plane crash off the coast of San Juan International Airport on December 31, 1972 while trying to deliver goods to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Clemente, who had raised over $150,000 and tons of supplies and clothing for the survivors, chose to board the plane to ensure that the donations didn’t fall into the hands of profiteers. The four-engined DC-7 plane crashed into the ocean off Puerto Rico, killing all four people on board.
Clemente, 38, was inducted into Major League’s Baseball’s Hall of Fame the following year and has been honored by the league since 1973 with the annual presentation of the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who best exemplifies the game, sportsmanship, community involvement and contributions to his team.
“It’s a great story on a Shakespearian level,” Rossi said. “Kind of like that Romeo and Juliet, a love story that ends tragically. It’s amazing that his story is not out there.”
Rossi believes that Clemente is just as important to the sport of baseball as Jackie Robinson and thinks that his number should be universally retired like the color-barrier breaking Dodger. He originally planned to make the film with a budget like that of 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, but health problems prompted him to jumpstart production and stop waiting for an elusive check from a wealthy investor.
“My doc said ‘these kind of moments are wake up calls…if there’s anything you want to do,’” Rossi said. “I said ‘I want to make my Clemente movie’ which is an odd response. Most people want to go on vacation or tour Europe or something. I wanted to make this film.”
Necessity brought the production of the film to Long Beach. Rossi had previously lived in Belmont Shore and had friends who offered their homes and connections in the city to aid in filming. Long Beach Poly High School served as the setting for spring training in the film and the locker room scenes depicted throughout the movie. A camera man’s home on Naples served as the Clemente residence in the film. Even though Clemente had no outright connection to the city, this biopic has an underlying Long Beach flavor.
The volunteer cast and crew is headlined by real life two-time Olympic high jumper Jamie Nieto, who was cast as Clemente. The filming of the movie spanned over a year due to the fact that production was relegated to weekends so day jobs could be tended to—or in the case of Nieto, the commute from San Diego to Long Beach had to be sandwiched between training for the national team. The dedication both from the actors and directors demonstrate that the film is truly a labor of love.
Various versions of the film have been shown in cities from San Francisco to Chicago. It sold out two screens at a viewing in Pittsburgh on Clemente’s birthday last August and was shown in June at theWild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Rossi said that the power of Clemente’s story comes from the man’s story and its ability to transcend generations because of his legitimate desire to help others. This, Rossi said, is what’s had people tearing up during the initial showing of the film. Whether you’re a dedicated baby boomer baseball fan who grew up with Clemente on your television, or you’re a present day student at Roberto Clemente Community Academy in Chicago, the emotion and humanity of the story breaks past the confines of sports.
“I think baseball and sports is sometimes more than just a game,” Rossi said. “It’s an emotional connection to someone that you shared it with.”
Los Altos Grace Brethren Church is located at 6565 Stearns Street Long Beach, CA 90815. Tickets for the event are $10 and can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/775523 Members of the cast and crew will be in attendance and available for questions after the showing.
Poster (above) by Matthew Dow.