Rising to the Top of the Game

April 15, 1990

Can someone please get this man a handkerchief? It is the morning of the 1989 All-Star Game, and Ruben Sierra has just dissolved into tears, which—it being Sierra—is no great cause for alarm. Some people have short fuses; Sierra, the Texas Rangers' sentimental young rightfielder, has a quick spigot.

"He cries at the drop of a hat," says his friend Luis Mayoral, who is partly responsible for this particular torrent. Mayoral, whose sundry occupations include that of radio journalist, was interviewing Sierra, when without warning, the subject's lower lip commenced quivering. Then came the rains. "Was it something I said?" asked Mayoral.

"No," sobbed Sierra. "It's just that tonight is the most important game of my life and my mother won't be here to see me play." Alas, though it was Sierra's fourth season in the majors, his mother, Petra, had yet to attend one of his major league games. It having suddenly occurred to Sierra how awful that was. he had a good cry, and that was that. (Happily, his mother made it to a game in Arlington a week later.)

The above-blubbered remark may be more telling than the tears. Tonight is the most important game of my life. Now, no one w
ants to embarrass himself at an All-Star Game; still, most of the participants in the midsummer classic tend to approach it as more of a pleasant exhibition than a proving ground. Try telling that to Sierra. For this speedy, switch-hitting 24-year-old, it is not enough to be an All-Star. He feels he must stand out as an All-Star among All-Stars. Anything less, after all, would be unworthy of "the next Clemente," as he has been branded by the citizens of his native Puerto Rico. Roberto Clemente—El Magnifico, the Hall of Fame rightfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates who died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, at the age of 38—was the last great Puerto Rican major leaguer. His countrymen have awaited a successor ever since.

Orlando Cepeda, a seven-time All-Star first baseman with the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, enjoyed national-hero status in Puerto Rico in the '60s and '70s. But the Baby Bull took a nosedive from the pantheon in 1975, a year after he retired, when he went to prison for attempting to smuggle 165 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. (Cepeda is now a scout with the San Francisco Giants). Another native son, Sixto Lezcano, had one great year with the Milwaukee Brewers in '79—batting .321 with 28 home runs—but then fizzled. The Houston Astros' Jose Cruz, while a very good player, was never in a class with Clemente or Cepeda.

Puerto Ricans believe Sierra is their man. Even before May 1987, when Rangers manager Bobby Valentine persuaded Sierra to wear 21—Clemente's number—comparisons abounded. Sierra plays rightfield, Clemente's position. Facially, he bears a striking resemblance to the Hall of Famer. "Clemente had very distinctive, regal eyes," says Mayoral, who has written a book on Clemente. "Ruben's are very similar. Remarkably similar." Indeed, Sierra has been approached on the streets of Puerto Rico and asked if he is a member of Clemente's family. "Secretly," says Mayoral, "Ruben is very proud of this."

While steadfastly deflecting comparisons—"I play like Ruben Sierra, not Roberto Clemente," he says, unwittingly but precisely echoing Clemente's comments to reporters when they compared him with Willie Mays—Sierra is at the same time terribly anxious to prove himself worthy of such claims.

Last year was his breakthrough season. He hit 29 home runs and batted .306. The American League MVP race came down to Sierra and Robin Yount of Milwaukee. The day the selection was announced, Sierra appeared in Mayoral's office in San Juan, at the Rangers' behest, to be available to the press. Thirty or so reporters showed. When the bad news came down—Yount narrowly edged Sierra—Sierra responded in character. He wept. "Even for Ruben, it was bad," recalls Mayoral, referring to the sheer volume of lachrymal fluid spilled. "There was a big dark spot on his pants leg where the tears fell."

In the States, Yount's MVP victory was considered mildly controversial; on the island of Puerto Rico, it was condemned as a larcenous miscarriage of justice. Four months later, Sierra is still raw over the result. During lunch in a cafe in Old San Juan, he interrupts his assault on a plate of mashed plantains to make his case one more time. "I led the league in RBIs [119], total bases [344], slugging percentage [.543], extra-base hits [78] and triples [14], and I was there in all the major categories. He beat me in batting average and doubles." Sierra points out that he's not miffed at Yount—"He's a good guy"—but at the voters. They're the ones who denied him that MVP trophy he wanted so badly he had a spot picked out for it on the top of his TV at home. "I was so sure," he says, dolefully, picking at his food. "And then that happened."

Mayoral knows precisely how to console his young friend. "It was the same with Clemente at first," he says. "What you do is come back the next season and play harder, until they simply cannot ignore you."

Ignoring Sierra is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Not satisfied to own just any Mercedes, Sierra held out for one with a gold grill, the better to catch the Puerto Rican sunshine and dazzle onlookers. For some social occasions, he has been known to deck himself out in $18,000 worth of bullion. For lunch today, he sports a doubloon-sized gold pendant, molded into the face of Christ—a Christ with ruby eyes and a diamond-encrusted halo. Such trappings are the badges of honor for a poor boy who made good.

Sierra was five years old when Clemente died in 1972. Some predicted the next Clemente would be, well, the next Clemente: Roberto Jr. The younger Clemente, known as Robertito, played Rookie League ball in the Pirates system, but was slowed by bad knees. Now 24, he is looking for a job in the minors. But as early as Little League, Robertito was upstaged by a poor kid from the Jardines Sellès housing projects in San Juan, a young pitcher named Ruben who struck everyone out and hit baseballs so hard he deformed them.

"I remember even then, Ruben was very anxious to make it to the major leagues," says Vera Clemente. Roberto's widow. The Clementes have known Sierra since he was nine, when Vera would drive from their tonier neighborhood in Rio Piedras to pick up Sierra in Jardines Sellès and take him to practice. In 1976, Sierra and Robertito were on the same 10-and-under-team that traveled to Pittsburgh and attended a Pirate game. In a museum in the bowels of the stadium, the boys stood beneath a life-sized wax statue of Clemente, and upon pressing a button, heard a recording of his voice. At least one of the youngsters found the experience overwhelming. "I cried," recalls Sierra. "I kept asking myself, Why did he have to die?"

At the age of four, Sierra lost his own father, Angel. After being seriously injured in a car accident, Angel was in the hospital in intensive care. One night he became thirsty. Unable to hail a nurse, he pulled out the tubes that tethered him to his bed and stumbled off to get a drink. On his way back to bed, he collapsed and died.

Ruben's mother worked as a janitor in a hospital to support her three sons and a daughter. Even as slums go, the Jardines Selles projects are rough. There is a flourishing cocaine trade, and violent crime comes with the territory. Carlos Sierra, five years older than Ruben, was not as strong as his brothers. He is currently in the state penitentiary in Rio Piedras, serving a four-year sentence for attempted murder. Ruben pays him weekly visits. "He's my brother, and I still love him," he says. "It's like baseball. Anyone can make an error." After a pause, Ruben adds, "He had a better arm than me." Last year, Sierra was able to move his mother out of Jardines Selles, into a house of her own in Rio Piedras. It was an emotional day for Ruben, and when the tears came, he didn't fight them.

Sierra's successful escape from the projects was aided by El Magnifico himself Clemente's most visible legacy to Puerto Ricans is the Roberto Clemente Sports City, a 303-acre park outside San Juan. Sierra spent countless hours there honing his baseball skills, before being signed by Rangers scout Oscar-Gomez. His progress as a pro was rapid, especially after he was taught to switch-hit. In his first year in the majors, in a game against the Minnesota Twins, Sierra homered twice, once from each side of the plate. The following season, he had 30 home runs and 109 RBIs. His numbers tailed off in '88, but after attacking the weights over the winter, he turned in last year's monster season.

It is not surprising that Sierra picked up switch-hitting so quickly. One of his pastimes—when he is not crooning the lyrics of Puerto Rican singing stars Tito Rodriguez or Jose Feliciano—is imitating the stances of other major leaguers. His impersonations are unerring, as if he were some kind of mimic savant. Now in a knock-kneed crouch, wagging his bat menacingly, he becomes Rickey Henderson. From the other side of the plate, pigeon-toed, his hands clenching and unclenching the bat, he out-Mattinglys Don Mattingly. Now going through his windup, delivering, swaggering toward the dugout, glove over left quadriceps just so, he is a flawless Nolan Ryan.

And consciously or not, when he bats righthanded. Sierra evokes Clemente. It is not a duplicate image: Clemente wielded a fat-handled 36-ounce bat, Sierra swings a 32; Clemente had an aggressive, nearly lunging swing, Sierra's is less exaggerated. At 6'1", 210 pounds. Sierra has Clemente by two inches and 35 pounds. Still, as Mayoral says, "Put him in a Pirates uniform and stand 150 feet away, and it would be scary."

During the 20-minute drive from Old San Juan to Sierra's home in Carolina (where Clemente was born), he is asked about the constant comparisons with Clemente. Mayoral poses the question in Spanish, then translates Sierra's answer: "The comparison creates in his mind a sense of responsibility. Not to surpass Clemente—this is not a competition—but to succeed continuously. Who knows? By the time Ruben retires, his numbers could be better, could be worse, but he will have honored himself and Clemente with his effort."

Noble words. A few minutes later, as Sierra hurtles down the 65th Infantry Avenue at 50 mph, he swerves into an enormous puddle in order to splash some pedestrians. Laughing, Sierra explains, "When I was a kid going to school, this used to happen to me all the time." For the moment, any comparisons with Clemente—who died flying relief supplies to victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake—seem slightly strained.

Upon arriving at his unassuming three-bedroom house, Sierra greets his wife, Janette, puts on a Gloria Estèfan tape and cranks the volume way up. His two-year-old daughter, Neysha, playing near one of the file-cabinet-sized speakers, takes little notice of the cacaphony. In the middle of the living room sits a Jet Ski, waiting to be taken in for repairs. Two walls are adorned with trophies, commemorative balls and bats, and pictures—along with a poster of Clemente, bat cocked, looking predatory.

The next Clemente still has much to learn from the original about grace and style. But as Sierra gives a tour of his trophies, one is reminded that he is, after all, not yet 25. "Ruben is very simple," says Mayoral. "Very naive. But he is learning." Among the conventions of big league behavior Sierra will learn before his retirement: 1) We mustn't use our automobile to drench innocent pedestrians, no matter how much amusement the practice affords us; 2) it is considered poor form to gripe about losing postseason awards, even if we are convinced we deserved them; and 3) it is unseemly to mention—as Sierra sometimes does—a desire to see one's uniform number retired when one's career is finished.

Yet if Sierra fulfills the promise of his first three seasons, it is difficult to imagine the Rangers' denying him the honor of retiring his number. It is equally difficult to imagine Sierra getting through the ceremony dry-eyed.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWith a batting net on the roof of his house in Puerto Rico, Sierra keeps his swing in shape. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERSierra's resemblance to Clemente—"It's scary," says a friend—adds to expectations. PHOTOTONY TRIOLO[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWhen he's not in tears, Sierra has a sunnier side that enjoys all the trappings of success.