Growing up, my older brother loved baseball. When he started out in pee-wee baseball, his team was called the Pirates. Naturally, his favorite Major League Baseball team was, and still is, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As the younger sister and baby of the family, whatever the older sibling liked or did I liked/did too. My brother liked the Pirates, so did I. [I also liked the A’s back then because I was born in Oakland but that’s another story.] He liked Roberto Clemente. So did I.
As I grew older, however, my team allegiances evolved. But, there was still something about Roberto Clemente that I held on to from my childhood. It didn’t matter that I had never seen Clemente play. It only mattered that my big brother liked him. As a kid, he liked him enough to read books on him. If you know young boys, sometimes its hard to get them to read anything that’s not a sports page or comics. He also liked him enough to write a report on him in elementary school. Clemente was the only athlete he ever wrote about.
I’ve held on to that for many years. And so, when I saw a Twitter avatar with Roberto Clemente in it, I took notice of who it belonged to.
Back then, he was known as @realfreemancbs. After moving to Bleacher Report last month, he is now @mikefreemanNFL. Mike Freeman is part of a new book coming out on September 24, 2013 about Roberto Clemente. I corresponded with Mike about his background and the new Clemente book.
Please give a little bit of your background.
I always wanted to be a writer or a pilot. I became both. I’ve crashed and burned on stories but not in a plane yet. So, there’s that. (Mike’s sarcasm coming through.]
Did you always want to be a writer? (Where did you go to school? Years writing?)
I started writing for a local newspaper when I was in high school in Baltimore. I started at the University of Delaware and finished at the University of Maryland-University College. I got my masters in non-fiction creative writing at Goucher College in Baltimore. While in school, I had two internships at Washington Post and Boston Globe. I worked full-time at Boston Globe, Washington Post, New York Times (about 13 years), Florida-Times Union, CBSSports.com and now Bleacher Report.
I wrote about sports because I loved playing sports and it was as simple as write what you know. I always loved writing about football because I found those players to be best combination of smarts and great storytellers.
You’ve written six books, including the very popular “Undefeated: Inside the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ Perfect Season”. How do you choose the subjects of the books you write? Do you take something from each one that you’ve learned to help you with the next one?
Books started out as something that I wasn’t sure if I could actually do. My first one was a look inside ESPN. It got me banned from the network but I consider it my second or third favorite book. Probably my second is Bloody Sundays which looked at the more grittier aspects of the sport. The Clemente book is easily my favorite so far.
Books are the hardest things to do in our business. Not even close. But, once you do your first one, you’re addicted. You get exponentially better with each one you do.
You have a new book coming out called “Clemente: The True Legacy of an Undying Hero”. Briefly describe how this book came about, how you connected with the Clemente family and what drew you to this project.
First, Clemente was one of my heroes. He was truly one of the great Americans and pioneers in sports history. How the book came about is a LONG story but suffice to say I was happy to get the opportunity to be a part of it. The family is extremely classy. They were very generous to me with their time. I spent a bunch of time in Puerto Rico interviewing the family. They’re great.
You said that Clemente was one of your heroes. Hero is a term used loosely in sports, so, what specifically makes him a hero to you?
The biggest thing is how he died. He spent his life dedicated to charitable giving and then he died doing just that. He was on a plane headed to Nicaragua to provide supplies to that country after it had been devastated by a horrible earthquake. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff. You are a true hero when you die trying to help others.
I have the David Maranis book, “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero” which I thoroughly enjoyed. It did give me a glimpse into who he was as a player and a man. How is this new book different or what does it have to offer that Maranis’ book or others on Clemente don’t?
David’s book was obviously terrific as is everything he writes. What this book does is tell the Clemente story strictly from the aspect of the family. It’s written using oral history technique so for much of the book you hear from family and close friends directly. It’s in their own words.
Is there something you learned about Clemente or even the Clemente family that you did not know about before?
I knew they were cherished in Puerto Rico but I guess seeing it up close and personal was amazing. They’re the Kennedy’s of Puerto Rico. Genuinely loved.
Have we as fans lost some of that respect for Clemente’s legacy? Do you feel that today’s fan can learn something from this book? If so, what?
I do think the passage of time has allowed some of the younger baseball fans to not know as much about Roberto Clemente as they should. He was a pioneer, he fought for the rights of athletes of color, he was a great player and he was also a great father.
Thanks for your time, Mike.
FINAL THOUGHT: If you don’t know the history of Roberto Clemente, Mike Freeman and the Clemente family’s book may be the book for you. Since it is told from the family’s point of view there will be perspective that hasn’t been shared in previous Clemente books. Even if you do know his history, there will be stories and photos that you have not known or seen before. As Mike said, it’s in “their own words”.
It’s funny how sports memories from your childhood come back to you when you’re an adult when you least expect it. Even though he didn’t know it, my brother impacted me with his affection for Roberto Clemente. I wouldn’t say I idolize him or call him a hero. There aren’t many people I will ever do that with, if any at all. But, when someone lays down his life to help someone else? It goes beyond respect for me. That may not make sense to anyone else but it does to me.
Get this new book. Tell the next generation of baseball, or even sports fans, about the great, Roberto Clemente.
They deserve to know the legacy he left behind.