Ex-Yankees star Williams pitches in, recalls Clemente's sacrifice
By Mark Newman
NEW YORK -- As he watched relief supplies for Puerto Rico being loaded onto a FedEx cargo plane on a tarmac at JFK Airport on Thursday morning, Bernie Williams thought of Roberto Clemente.
Williams was a 4-year-old boy in Puerto Rico back then, too young to process the shock and sadness that was so profound there in 1972, when the island's most celebrated figure lost his life in a cargo plane crash while delivering relief supplies after a natural disaster.
"He paid the ultimate sacrifice for his island," Williams said. "He gave his life in an unforeseeable tragic event, trying to help other people in need, in Nicaragua. He basically paved the way for all of us to follow his example. Major League Baseball, the Carlos Beltran Foundation, which I guess I'm representing in a way, all the Puerto Rican baseball players who are playing now in MLB and the Minor Leagues, we are all doing everything we can to try to get some help down there and try to make sure that we get Puerto Rico back on their feet."
Following the lead of the relief and recovery efforts by all clubs in response to recent natural disasters, MLB chartered a FedEx cargo plane filled with much-needed supplies for families affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Supplies included water, diapers and baby food, and the plane was scheduled to arrive later in the day at Aguadilla.
There, the goods were to be distributed unfettered to the northwest part of the island, through the joint efforts of Beltran's foundation and U.S. Homeland Security. Ninety percent of the island remains without power, three weeks after the disaster. Some people are still starving.
The Yankees and the Hispanic Federation are supporting the initiative in conjunction with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Empire State Relief and Recovery Effort, which provided supplies donated by New Yorkers across the state. Dignitaries at the event also included Jorge Perez-Diaz, MLB's senior vice president and special counsel, litigation and international affairs; Jose Calderon, president of the Hispanic Federation; and Melanie LeGrande, MLB's vice president for social responsibility.
It was one of several examples of baseball assisting victims in Puerto Rico, especially MLB clubs -- including the Astros, D-backs, Pirates and Rays -- who have chartered planes to Puerto Rico to deliver supplies and assistance to individuals most in need. Many clubs have also held collections, made direct financial donations, utilized partners to deliver additional supplies and raised funds toward relief and recovery efforts.
"It has broken my heart to see the island like that," Williams said, thinking this must have been how Clemente felt. "It's a testament to the resiliency of Puerto Ricans, getting together and doing the best that they can under these circumstances."
Williams recently accompanied former teammate Jorge Posada on a relief flight to their native land. Asked how his loved ones were doing back on Puerto Rico, Williams said, "I have one brother, three nephews, a sister-in-law and countless relatives and people I went to school with, people who are tied to me with the music aspect of my life right now.
"A lot of people are telling me that things are still not well. There's a lot of need for water, power, perishables, food, diapers, things for the elderly. They need power to get refrigerators so you can get people who are sick and have their medication, need it to be refrigerated. It's a big issue down there as well. We're trying to do the best we can to get those goods down and hopefully it will reach people at a good moment."
Speaking of relief, Williams said he has found some joy in watching his former Yankees team add unexpected drama to this postseason. They just pulled off an American League Division Series comeback against Cleveland from the same 0-2 hole that his club recovered from in 2001.
"It was great. Watching that team do their thing, taking ownership of the moment -- right now is their moment," Williams said of the Yankees. "They owned it, they earned that win, when everybody thought that the favored Indians were going to win that game with their best pitcher. On the road as well. It was a great victory for the team, and it's going to be great to see how far they can take this Cinderella story, I guess."
Williams sees a team with not much to lose, and says "anything is possible" as they prepare for the AL Championship Series starting at Houston.
"They have defied all skeptics up to this point," Williams said. "They were basically given permission to play average this year, because obviously with the youth and the team they put together. The guys on the team didn't really take that. They said, 'We're a Major League team, we can compete with all these guys,' and they're proving it right now."
Make no mistake, the subject of baseball games fits squarely into the more serious matter of an island's recovery and the survival of its people. Calderon said the mere ability of Puerto Ricans to watch this postseason, to be inspired by their heroes like Beltran of the Astros or Javier Baez of the Cubs, is important. Power to refrigerate medicine and food is urgent; power to watch baseball games helps people cope and find joy amid chaos.
In September, MLB donated $1 million to assist communities impacted by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as well as those by the earthquakes in Mexico. Additionally, MLB is funding travel for physicians and other medical personnel as part of a special effort to provide direct medical assistance to affected communities. The contribution represents an ongoing commitment by MLB to provide support for victims of natural disasters.
More than $15 million has been raised through direct league and club donations as well as fundraising pages to assist individuals and communities affected by recent storms, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the U.S. and Caribbean, and the earthquakes in Mexico. MLB is continuing to encourage its fans to join the relief and recovery efforts by visiting YouCaring.com/MLBSupports to donate.
"We're hoping this will have a great impact," Williams said. "We have a lot of provisions here -- things that are essential for people's survival. ... It's a big project. It's not going to happen overnight. But the people are working day in and day out, trying to get Puerto Rico back on its feet and trying to get some normalcy back to the island."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com and a baseball writer since 1990. Follow him on Twitter @Marathoner and read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com/blogs hub. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.