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.
The San Francisco Giants played four games in Chicago decided by one run each, and lost three of them. The one that hurt the most was the last one, on Sunday, when they led 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Casilla blew another save when the Cubs tied at 2-2, and then the Giants failed to cash in on several chances in extra innings. They lost 3-2 after 13.
The one bright spot was Saturday, when the Giants combined a very strong performance by Madison Bumgarner with opportunistic baseball, taking full advantage of a couple of Cubs mistakes. This game suggested that the Giants still have some postseason moxie left in them.
They can console themselves that they lost to the team that is clearly the best in baseball at the moment, and must be the heavy favorite to win all the marbles this year. On the other hand, the Giants had everything to play for and the Cubs essentially had nothing, and it was the Cubs that came through in the crucial moments to win three one-run games.
The Giants are a mess, carrying way too many pitchers and not getting enough hits. At least one of their risky moves last month has come back to haunt them, as I suspected it might: they got rid of catcher Andrew Susak, their backup catcher last year who would have been a strong third option now. With backup Trevor Brown ailing, Buster Posey has been playing way too much, adding exhaustion to several minor ailments that aren't getting rest to heal. Posey's hitting is predictably way down.
The Giants have been lucky in one regard--the Dodgers haven't been a lot better. But today's combination of Giants' loss and Dodgers victory drops SF three games back, which right now looks like a very steep climb. With the Cards and Mets surging, and the Pirates staying around, even a Wild Card berth is questionable.
Bumgarner on Saturday pointed out that the Giants are actually in better shape in the standings now than they were at this time in 2014. I don't know how much consolation that is, however. The Giants had a more reliable closer then, and a more experienced bullpen. And there wasn't anybody who looked as strong as the Cubs do now. Even if the Giants limp into postseason, it's hard to see them getting past the Cubs in a series.
Still, it's baseball. And there's enough of it left to offer big surprises.