"Baseball's Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories" is a low budget movie on the life of baseball icon Roberto Clemente. The film was a labor of love made by volunteers on a shoestring budget. Two-time Olympian Jamie Nieto plays the role of Clemente, and Bravo's Project Runway Winner Marilinda Rivera portrays his wife Vera Clemente. The indie-film got a bigger blessing than Sundance, Variety, or the Hollywood Reporter when Pope Francis contacted director Richard Rossi about the film's portrayal of Clemente's humanitarian sacrifice. Maria Ramirez obtained an exclusive interview with Rossi for Catholic News Wire to reflect on the film's impact, felt all the way to the Vatican.
CNW: When the letters arrived from Pope Francis, what was your reaction?
RR: I didn't know what it was at first. It had an official seal on it, and I honestly didn't know what they were. Pope Francis letters to me were always sent through the Vatican emissary office called the Apostolic Nunciature to the United States in Washington, D.C. My thought after reading the first letter was, "Wow, a letter from the Pope. That doesn't happen every day."
CNW: You've shared some of the correspondence with the media, I've seen coverage on CBS News, in the LA Times, Washington Post, and various other media. Other letters you've elected to keep private as instructed by the Church. Some of the late night comics have made jokes about the Pope canonizing Clemente because of your film and that you and Pope Francis are "out of left field," "off-base," and other baseball jokes. What's been your latest thoughts to the effort to make Clemente a saint because of the film?
RR: Well, we had to make the pitch right? The baseball puns and groaners are endless. My personal opinion is that Roberto Clemente is already a saint in the best definition of the word. I think he is more worthy of that honor than many who the Catholic church have previously given it to. He led a Christlike life in the sense that he cared and laid down his life for others, dying in a mission of mercy to earthquake victims. By the grace of God, and the actions of his life, he is a saint to me already. I'm not saying he's perfect, sinless, or anything like that. He showed us how to live with concern for others, for disadvantaged children. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. The Catholic Church canonizing Clemente does not make him a saint at that moment in the future, they'll be affirming what he already was long before that. I'll be thrilled if the canonization process we've had a small part in starting through the film comes to full recognition of what he did.
CNW: It was more than a small part, if I may say so. What is your own background relative to Catholicism and your views on the current Pope?
RR: I was born and raised Catholic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I grew up attending Pirates games and Clemente was my boyhood hero. There's things I like about the Catholic Church and other things I don't. I like the history and the art. I was in Italy when my first feature film "Sister Aimee" was up for an award in Milan. I toured the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel and I think they are examples of the importance the Church has played relative to art history. Although my evangelical friends are loathe to admit it, the Catholic Church was instrumental in collecting the writings to form the canon and put the Bible together. Some of my youthful experience was in the fundamentalist circles where they tend to not understand the Catholic Church's role in formulating orthodox doctrine through the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. I tried to explain that to them but they weren't too astute to understand that. The Catholic Church is an important part in my own journey and history. My wife and I've participated in a couples group called Marriage Encounter which is a ministry of the Catholic Church. My wife and I enjoy Mass. My spiritual journey has led me to explore many other churches and books, I've never limited my mind and growth to any one denomination. I've spent as much time exploring other groups outside of Catholicism as I have inside it. There are not too many denominations or religious organizations I haven't exposed myself to. My bottom line conclusion is it's an inside job.
CNW: What do you mean by an inside job?
RR: Jesus said 'The kingdom of God is within you.' What is in your heart? Listen to the Holy Spirit, the still, small voice inside you. It's not commandments written on stone, the law of God is written in your heart. When we give away our minds and power to an external religious leader to tell us what God is saying, we get into trouble. I've seen problems when people do that in Catholicism, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, fundamentalism, and all the other "Isms."
CNW: What don't you like about Catholicism?
RR: There's quite a bit of sexual pathology in both the Catholic and Protestant churches. The molestation of children by priests, and the pedophilia in fundamentalism, one recent case in the news is the Duggars, seems to be prevalent in rigid religion. Several religious leaders I knew in the fundamentalist Protestant world molested one of their kids, their own kids, and some other kids in the church. I know people who are very close to me who were abused in such a way by religious leaders. That's the worse thing about it. Some of the old school nuns were abusive, I experienced abuse in Catholic school as a kid. But I also know nuns that are sweet, wonderful, prayerful supporters of me and the film. I've had friends who are priests and bishops who are wonderful men. I've enjoyed spiritual retreats with them. The nun who was the real life inspiration for the scene with Clemente was such a person.
CNW: Is it true that the scene you're referring to in your film "Baseball's
Last Hero" with the nun and Clemente, the one that got Vatican
attention, was added later and wasn't in the original script?
RR: Yes, I wrote it one night at the apartment of some
friends of ours, Paciano and Molly. They were hosting the Marriage
Encounter group on a Friday night. My wife and I finished our sharing
assignment and had a few quiet moments and the scene came to me. I
wrote it down. Jamie Nieto who played Clemente and Laura Alexandra
Ramos who played the nun did a fantastic job with a lot of dialogue on
CNW: Is it true that Archbishop Jose Gomez, of the Los Angeles Diocese contacted you to support your film and efforts? If so, he is probably the most influential Latin American clergyman in America?
RR: Yes, he's very gracious and wrote to tell me he's sharing our film with Catholic Athlete's for Christ and he's supportive of the cause.
CNW: What's your feeling about Pope Francis?
RR: I like him. At least what I've seen. I don't really know him obviously other than the correspondence. I like how he is willing to identify with the oppressed and not be so married to the wealth of Rome. As a Latin American, he has the ethnicity to appreciate Roberto Clemente's culture. He's been criticized for reaching out to people the church loves to hate, like homosexuals, Muslims, the poor. My understanding of Jesus is that He was criticized for being a friend of the fallen, a friend of sinners and outcasts. The Pharisees accused Him of being a drunkard and a wine-bibber. I like the Pope's recent statements that salvation is a free gift of grace, which reflects my views and what I read in the second chapter of Ephesians.
CNW: Where can we see the film?
RR: It's available now for rent or DVD purchase at Amazon, Truli, and IAMflix. Just search for "Baseball's Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories."
His goal? Nothing short of making Clemente an officially recognized Catholic saint.
“He had a calling to be a great baseball player,” Rossi said, “but he had a calling beyond baseball.”
Clemente played right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955-1972. He reached 3,000 hits and won the National League MVP trophy in 1966.
On Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente boarded a flight in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to ferry relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Soon after takeoff, the plane crashed, killing Clemente and four others.
After talking to several people, including a nun, Rossi said, he learned the religious side to Clemente had been left out of most biographies. So, Rossi, a 51-year-old Catholic and independent filmmaker in Hollywood, made it one of the bigger parts in his movie, “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories.”
Director Richard Rossi met two Clemente fans, Alonso & Oscar Garcia from
Nicaragua at San Francisco screening movie "Baseball's Last Hero."
Under normal circumstances, miracles are considered much later in the process, after the church has officially opened a sainthood cause. Catholic teaching says miracles attributed to a saint — two are needed for canonization, after his or her death — are evidence that the person has God’s ear in heaven.
“One reason the Catholic Church has lasted a couple of thousand years, it has this kind of process, they’re very slow and so we want to make sure we present something that, you know, has a lot of credible evidence,” Rossi said.
Rossi already has several supporters on his side, including Duane Rieder, executive director of the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh.
Rieder said he has spent time talking to family, friends and nuns who knew Clemente; they say he predicted his own death through dreams of him dying in the ocean and his body not being found.
“He’s the only true baseball hero. He’s the only person, player that ever gave up his life helping other people. Everybody else, you know, Babe Ruth wasn’t a hero. He was a hell of a baseball player,” Rieder said. “Roberto Clemente was the only true baseball hero.”
Rossi is also looking for support from bishops, including Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan — and even Pope Francis.
“The purpose of my writing is to humbly ask your blessing my efforts to defend the beginning of the canonization of Puerto Rican athlete humanitarian Roberto Clemente,” the letter says.
As the archbishop of San Juan, Nieves would have to sign off on Clemente’s sainthood cause and move the process along to the Vatican. The Archdiocese of San Juan did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Rossi also hopes to meet with Pope Francis and show him his movie. “I think he is the perfect pope for this — No. 1, being Latin American. But No. 2, he thinks outside the box.”
Carmen Nanko-Fernandez, a Latina theologian at Chicago Theological Union, is writing a book about Clemente, “El Santo! Baseball and the Canonization of Roberto Clemente.” She said anything is possible with Pope Francis, but due to a canonization process that can stretch on for centuries, she isn’t so sure Clemente will make the cut.
"All evidence seems to point to that Clemente was a good guy who tried to lived his life well. So in that sense, you know, does he have a chance at being considered a saintly person? Sure,” she said. “Will that make him into the canonization process that makes him an officially recognized saint in the Catholic Church? I’m not so sure.”
But Nanko-Fernandez said Hispanic Catholics can continue to venerate and honor him, making him an unofficial saint.
“It’s not necessary for one to become an official saint to be considered a saint,” Nanko-Fernandez said.
For Rossi, Clemente is needed as a saint for “ordinary” people to look up to. Clemente lived his life for others and died in service to the poor, Rossi said, and what could be more saintly than that?
“When we look at the process of canonization, unfortunately, it’s very weighted towards celibate people that choose the vocations of being a priest or nun,” Rossi said. “I mean, there’s a very small percentage that walk it out in the real world as a family-first man, as a husband, as a father, in a secular culture, as a baseball star.”