Ten years before he became the first player from Puerto Rico’s famed Clemente Sports City to reach the majors, 10-year-old pitcher Ruben Sierra went to Knoxville, Tenn., to play in a youth World Series. One of his teammates was Roberto Clemente Jr. Names and genetics aside, it was clear even then that Sierra was the young genius in cleats, the one with the chance one day to approximate the great Clemente’s skills and achievements.
Their Pirates-21 team was saddened to finish third, but chaperone Vera Clemente, the Hall of Famer’s widow, cheered up the kids by loading them onto a school bus for an impromptu 12-hour trip to Pittsburgh and Three Rivers Stadium. When they arrived, Ruben ran directly to right field, Clemente’s former position and Sierra’s future one. Right out there on the turf, he wept.
And when Sierra joined the Texas Rangers 10 years later, Manager Bobby Valentine virtually ripped uniform No. 21-- Clemente’s number--off another Puerto Rican player, pitcher Edwin Correa, and handed it to Sierra. Whether it was Sierra’s curse or his blessing to be so closely linked with Clemente is a matter of opinion.
Some say Sierra has thrived on this unreal pressure. Others say it can overwhelm him. Still others are offended by the Clemente-Sierra comparison. The recent trade of Sierra to the New York Yankees for Danny Tartabull has been portrayed in many places as the swapping of migraine headaches. To be sure, after some productive years for Valentine’s Rangers, Sierra’s reputation did do a nosedive in Oakland, particularly during the last few months.
Speaking of the well-known Sierra-Clemente link, Athletics General Manager Sandy Alderson said, “Those comparisons are grossly inappropriate. They’re different types of players and different types of persons. In terms of the person, using the historical record for comparison, Clemente was someone who reached out to people. Ruben’s not entirely to blame. This is a new era. There are different norms.”
Sierra was raised by his mother, Petra, a hospital worker, in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico [Sierra’s father died when Ruben was a young boy], two miles from Clemente’s Carolina home. He was 7 when Clemente was killed. “He used to come to the house and see all the trophies,” Vera Clemente said by phone from Puerto Rico. “He admired Roberto. I remember one day he was admiring Roberto’s car so much that we had to drive him home in it.”
The “next Clemente” now knows there is no such thing as the next Clemente. Still only 29 but with a decade of major-league memories, Sierra has lowered his goals somewhat; he wants dearly to restore his sullied reputation after public fights with Alderson and other A’s.
Some say Sierra craves the spotlight. Yet in his first New York interviews he made clear he relishes the rare opportunity to blend in quietly on a team with Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill and especially Don Mattingly, with whom he says it is an “honor” to play. Sierra described himself as “humble.” Yet after ripping a game-winning two-run double Thursday night, he declared, “When the game’s on the line, that’s when I’m big. All my life I’ve been that way.”
Sierra is a hard man to get a handle on, and Athletics management never did. Manager Tony La Russa called Sierra a “village idiot.” And teammates Steve Ontiveros and the well-respected Dave Stewart also ripped him. In a phone interview Thursday, La Russa tried to back away from that unfortunate remark, saying, “That really was taken out of context. In baseball, that’s just a term. He’s not a village idiot.”
Said Mike Stanley, Sierra’s teammate here and in Texas, “You’ve got to know Ruben to understand him. He’s a superstar who a lot of Puerto Ricans look up to. He was supposed to be the next Roberto Clemente. There were a lot of expectations from him. That’s where he’s sometimes misunderstood. Trying to be an idol . . . raises your chest a little bit.”