Monday, August 18, 2008

Happy Birthday Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, would have been 74 today. I was too young to see him play, but he was Puerto Rican and I am Puerto Rican, so I always felt a connection to him. I recently read David Maraniss's book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero and came away with more admiration for the man.

Clemente possessed perhaps the best outfield arm of all time, but he also excelled at the plate, lashing line drives in droves on the way to four batting titles, 13 seasons over .300, and exactly 3,000 career hits. He won an MVP Award and helped his Pittsburgh Pirates to two World Series victories.

Most long-time fans can tell stories about the amazing things Clemente could do in the outfield, like throw out a runner at home from the warning track on one bounce, or gun a runner at third on the fly from the right-field corner. He was that good and that memorable.

During his career, he fought to help Latin ballplayers gain acceptance into the major league fraternity, but his dedication and valor didn’t end on the field: His death on New Year’s Eve 1972 occurred while he was aboard a mercy mission carrying supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.

One story from 1971 illustrates the way Clemente played the game—and lived his life. He was 37 years old and worn down by 17 seasons of bold and sometimes reckless outfield play. But on that day, he proved to 14,933 baseball fans at the Houston Astrodome what his teammates and his family already knew: that he was the kind of player who would run into a brick wall to help his team. It happened on August 27, as his Pittsburgh Pirates were coasting to their second straight division title. They played the first game of a three-game series in Houston and led 7-3 in the eighth inning. A right-handed hitter caught a pitch off the end of the bat and sent the ball high into the air, curling toward the right-field foul line, where a brick wall separated the field from the fans. Clemente was playing the hitter to pull the ball, in right-center, giving him a long run to make the out. He began to sprint madly. When the ball reached its peak and began its descent, Clemente seemed too far from it to make the catch.

A regular human being would have slowed down at that point, let the ball drop; no use risking a nasty confrontation with that brick wall. The ball would have been foul anyway—no harm done. But such was not Clemente’s style. He kept running after it, and the ball kept twisting toward the stands. Fans in the first dozen or so rows stood up to catch the souvenir, assuming that it would bounce on the hard turf and into the seats. Then they saw Clemente sprinting toward them, and they must have thought about that brick wall, and they must have realized that he wasn’t going to stop in time. Clemente himself certainly didn’t. He just kept running and running, his eyes fixed on the ball, his mind focused on one single effort: making the catch for out number three. He reached out and, two steps in front of the wall, made the catch. Then he braced himself for the impact. Smack! The wall didn’t give an inch. Clemente did. The force knocked him to the ground, but he never let go of the ball. He got up slowly and tossed the ball back toward the infield. The game went on.

Later in the clubhouse, a reporter asked him why he had taken the risk; why did he go after such a meaningless out? Clemente looked confused. He didn’t understand the question. The reporter explained: He could have hurt himself—was the catch really worth it? Why didn’t Clemente let the ball drop? Clemente paused. Then he answered simply, “I wanted to catch the ball.” And the reporters understood. Anybody who knew Clemente knew that there was only one way for him to do anything—the right way. The score of the game, the position of brick walls, the risk of injury—none of that made a difference. You dedicate yourself to something, you accept the responsibility, and you go all out. Always.

He once said, “I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.” He is.

1 comment:

uurf said...

I had the good fortune to see Clemente hit his 3,000 (and last) hit, and doff his cap to the fans standing on (second?) base. My older brother, who still can't read a batting lineup and make sense of it, chose an inopportune time to visit the restroom and missed it.

The next Clemente related news I remembered was his decision to do what he could to provide relief for the vistims of the earthquake in Nicaragua. I know now what I didn't then - that this was a wholly unselfish and completely uncommon act for someone in his position.

The final memory then, was the news of the crash, and his presumed death. The team, the city, and especially young fans like myself were heartbroken.

He was a rare talent, and even more astounding in this age of modern sports, a compassionate and caring human being who also gave all he could - literally - off the field as well. Thanks for the memories.