The Great One: #21

I am taking a one-post break from my usual ramblings about writing, drama, history, or life to write about the other passion in my life: baseball. I hope you enjoy!

The Great One: #21

I was a little over five years old when Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash. I don’t remember it. He wore #21.

The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are a few short victories away from stopping the record for the most consecutive losing seasons by any professional sports franchise. The last time they had a winning season was in 1992 – 21 years ago.

I started listening to Pirates baseball back in 1976 and 1977. I remember sitting at the dining room table in the evening with the crackled cadences of the national past-time humming over the airwaves while I was, no doubt, doodling with numbers or statistics in a spiral-bound notebook. My childhood revolved around three things: spiral-bound notebooks, a transistor radio, and a shoebox full of baseball cards.

I don’t remember why I started listening or what it was about baseball over the radio that started my four decade love-affair with baseball, but I became hooked.

I had stacks of spiral-bound notebooks which I filled with stats of make-believe players, teams, and leagues. I created games in my head by standing out in front of our house and tossing a tennis ball into the air and whacking it with a long, hard-plastic Whiffle ball bat. In my mind, I threw myself curves, grounded into double plays, and even hit home runs when the ball flew over the driveway and landed in the garden. My third baseman was a tall, oval-shaped arborvitae shrub – who had great hands – and my second baseman and shortstop combined was a medium size pine tree about twenty five feet from the sidewalk where I stood to hit the ball. The outfield consisted of an extremely tall pine tree where home runs went to die. This was real fantasy baseball. My daily games drove me to write down notebooks full of stats, and my daytime dream-ball drove me every evening to my radio where I listened to the Lumber Company powered by Willie Stargell, Dave Parker et al.

It became obvious to me over my early years of listening to Bucco baseball that the team I had joined as a blood brother for life was still coming out of the shadows of the tragic death of The Great One – Roberto Clemente. It took a small boy like me many years to piece together just who this Clemente was, how good he played baseball, and why his death had greatly impacted so many people. By the time I reached high school, I had learned enough about the man to seek out #21 for the back of my Legion ball uniform. College the same – then post-college – then softball coaching – always #21 to honor the man.

So as the Pirates get ready to breakout of their 20 year losing streak, I thought it would be a good time to remind people just who Roberto Clemente was. (This will in no way be an authoritative rendering of his life. If you want that, I highly recommend David Maraniss’ Clemente Biography.)

Roberto Clemente was a fiercely proud Latino ballplayer from Puerto Rico. His prowess in right field is the stuff of legends. He won 12 consecutive gold gloves with a power rocket of an arm that was second to none.

He was lifted from the Dodgers organization in the Rule 5 draft – quite the coup for the Pirates organization. In the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees, he hit safely in all seven of the games, setting the stage for him to become one of the very best players of the 1960s. He won the N.L. MVP award in 1966 and led the Pirates to three consecutive NL East titles in 1970-1972. His star shined the brightest during the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles where he, once again, hit safely in all seven of the games extending his World Series hitting streak to 14 games. He thrived in the games biggest stage.

On the last day of the season in 1972, he pounded a double into Three River’s Stadium’s left-center field gap – his career 3000 base hit, reaching the plateau of baseball giants, assuring him of induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame after his retirement of from the game. When that hit reached the outfield, his career batting average was .317. Little did everyone know that that number would be his final career average.

Clemente was often a misunderstood player. He didn’t care for the English label “Bob” which graced a few of his baseball cards. He was moody, often complaining about injuries, and fiercely proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, which was still a subject of great consternation during the turbulent civil rights era. During one of the great moments of Roberto’s career, while basking in the achievement of defeating the Orioles after the 1971 World Series, he was asked a question by legendary Pirates’ broadcaster Bob Prince, but before he answered, he turned to the national TV audience and spoke his love to his mother and beloved homeland in Spanish. It’s little wonder that boys and players all over the Caribbean grew up idolizing the man. He was the first great Latin ballplayer. The first Latin ballplayer inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the idol of every boy from the banks of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium to rugged sandlots of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

But for all his baseball pedigree, he is, perhaps, just as revered for his love and compassion for all of humanity.

On a stormy night, New Year’s Eve 1972, Clemente boarded a plane of questionable air-worthiness that he had hired himself, that he had coordinated and loaded himself, with a humanitarian load of supplies headed towards the victims of a horrific earthquake in Nicaragua which had occurred a week earlier on December 23. The plane took off and quickly crashed into the sea just off the coast of Puerto Rico. His body was never recovered. Panamanian teammate and Pirates’ catcher Manny Sanguillen scoured the beach for days looking for evidence of Roberto’s remains. None were ever found.

On March 30, 1973, the baseball writers of America conducted a special election, waiving the five year retirement requirement, and elected Roberto Clemente to the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously.

His death signified how he lived. Graciously. He loved people, and if he could help, he would put aside his own holiday plans in order to put others first. On the field or off, Roberto Clemente stands as a symbol of greatness, and the statue of him outside of PNC Park, or the bridge renamed after him, which leads thousands of people from downtown to the ballpark on gameday, stands as a reminder of the human being he was. And of course, I have to mention the Clemente Wall, the 21-ft high wall in right field of PNC Park, which watches over his hallowed position, providing a sense of history and depth to the 126 year old franchise.

If you take a walk around PNC Park on any given day, you’re likely to see as many Clemente jerseys as McCutchen jerseys. That’s the power of the spell he has cast over the city of Pittsburgh and the baseball-loving portions of the Caribbean for the last forty years.

So it is extremely suitable for the number 21 to once again rear its head and make itself known in 2013. A twenty one year losing streak for the proud Pittsburgh franchise would just be unacceptable. The streak will end at 20, and in the highly superstitious realm of baseball, I’d like to think that Roberto somehow had a hand in it.

(Note: The Clemente family has a biography about Roberto set to release in September 2013. You can see more information about that HERE.)

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