Defaced Clemente mural reveals a portrait of neglect

The news sucker punched me in 1972.

An airplane fell out of the sky and plunged in the water off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico.

Among the lost was No. 21.

Suddenly, the 8-year-old wannabe big-leaguer who determined never to drop a fly ball while patrolling right field as Roberto Clemente felt a tear, and then another, drop on my cheeks.

I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan — but not Puerto Rican. Yet, through that tenuous bond, I still felt, if in a muted way, the grief Puerto Ricans shared over their lost national treasure. That Clemente — who posthumously became the first Latin American-born player to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame — perished while helping earthquake victims only cemented my fandom.

The sum of his parts, I suspect, is why residents of Azalea Park — where many Hispanic families first moved in the 1970s — were crushed by word last month that vandals ruined a mural of Clemente. The mural kindled pride in Little Leaguers who mimicked No. 21 on the baseball diamond at Azalea Park Elementary.

Not only was the vandalism an unspeakable act of desecration, it was, for many of the Puerto Ricans who've made the East Orange community home, almost like watching their hero die a second tragic death.

As Azalea Park Little League vice president Ramiro Rivera said, "I have kids crying about this. It's affected a lot of people. It's outrageous."

The mural, a police report declared, "has been completely painted over by an unknown suspect."

The vandals' dark strokes added a fresh coat of resentment for some residents of Azalea Park, a four-square mile community that began taking shape in 1952. It sits smack in the heart of Orange County — yet some insist Azalea Park gets little love.

This is, after all, a community where for more than a half-century motorists dodged kids playing tag and hide-and-seek in residential streets because Azalea Park, ironically, had no parks.

A community bitten hard by the subprime-mortgage snake oil (in 2011, median resale prices had plunged more than 70 percent since 2007).

A community where muttering for increased political clout to match changing demographics has become a full-throated scream. After all, since 1980, the community has browned, soaring from 7 percent Hispanic to 59 percent Hispanic.

And, of course, a community for which a mural painted by league coach Earl Lugo's childhood friend, professional graffiti artist Hector "Nicer" Nazario, stood as the focal point of a campaign three years ago to restore a ramshackle ball field and community pride.

"Our kids, they go to fancy parks to play in the city, but we've got this mural," a choked up Lugo told reporters after the vandals struck. "It would make us stand out. It would make us proud."

Past tense.

Even before the desecration, Carlos Guzman, president of the Puerto Rican Leadership Council, called the field over which Clemente stood sentry an "orphan" park. One that he says suffered benign neglect by school and local officials, a symptom of chronic political indifference toward an area where the number of residents below the poverty line exceeded the national average.

"The sad part of it is," says Guzman, who's lived on that side of town for nearly three decades, "the longer you stay in that state of affairs, the more you are conditioned to accept those conditions as 'well, this is the way it is'.

"We get trampled with the redistricting process … and vandals … see that our government and elected officials do not respect us. … They think they can get away with it and get no punishment."

The good news: Clemente will rise again. Nazario, the original mural painter, will reprise his work, thanks to offers to bankroll his efforts. Meanwhile, Guzman is lobbying city and county officials to remodel what was known as Azalea's "Field of Dreams," and provide a dedicated maintenance fund.

I haven't crunched the numbers. Whether there's money and political will for this, I dunno.

I know this: Local officials would be wise to ramp up the conversation with Azalea Park constituents, addressing this issue and other real and perceived neglect, showing some love to one of the county's far-flung, unincorporated areas.

Here's hoping they — like Clemente — don't drop the ball.

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