Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Great One

Major League Baseball celebrates the career of Roberto Clemente today.

I saw Clemente play at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, and as a kid went down on the field on a meet the players day and shook his hand.  He was the player I sought out.

Here's my favorite Clemente story, which I've probably told you before.  It was a night game at Forbes Field.  I don't know if beer was sold there by the can or people just brought it in, but I remember hearing the sound of many cans opening and seeing the spray in the lights.

It was a long game.  The score was tied in the bottom of the ninth, or it may have been the 10th.  I was excited but getting sleepy.  Concentrating on a ball game is tiring.  But one of the Pirates got a hit, a double. Everybody stood up for that.

Clemente was coming up. People were sitting down, settling in for a typical Clemente at-bat.  This almost always meant he let the first pitch go by.  He might swing at a pitch so hard that his helmet and his regular cap he wore underneath it would both fly off.  And then he would get serious.

Except not this time. People were still sitting down when he swung at the first pitch and hit it so hard, that when it hit the right field fence right on the foul line, it seemed to knock the paint or the chalk right off of it.  It sounded like a cannon shot and left nothing to see but smoke.  The game was over.

The last time I saw him was more than a decade later, in 1972, playing against the Mets at Shea Stadium.  I was in an upper deck on the first base side, so I watched him on first base after he hit a single.

It turned out to be one of the last times anyone saw him.  It was the last away series before the Pirates returned home and Clemente got the 3,000 hit of his career, against the Mets.  That's his official number.  He actually got several more hits in a playoff series, but the Pirates didn't advance.

And then that winter he was lost in the sea, trying to get supplies to earthquake victims in a little country not his own.

He was the Great One.

He played right field like a gazelle, and had a cannon of a throwing arm.  He complained it was never the same after early in his career he threw from the deepest part of right field on a line to home plate.  He had style--his own form of the basket catch, his batting stance and base running.

The deepest part of right field, by the way, was the Exit Gate, not always used as I recall but once we did leave Forbes Field that way--walking across the grass that Clemente patrolled every game.

He played in the World Series twice.  In 1960 he hit safely in all 7 games.  In 1971 he hit over .400 and won the series MVP.  The Pirates won both championships.  The one in 1960 against the Yankees was their first since 1927.

He overcame racial hostility and misunderstanding to become a beloved player in Pittsburgh.  When the Pirates left Forbes Field for Three Rivers he was bereft--he'd played that right field half his life, he said.

Pirates announcer Bob Prince would pronounce his full name with correct pronunciation--Ro-buer-to Clem-en-tay the first time, and then refer to him as Bob or Bobby "Clemeney."  He also gave him the nickname of "Arriba" as in "Vamos arriba," let's rise up, let's go.

He battled injuries but had a career of remarkably consistent excellence as a hitter and a fielder, and longevity as a player of 18 seasons with the Pirates. Considering that he'd won that MVP one season before he died, his career wasn't nearly over.  We sure weren't ready to say goodbye.

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