The Story Hall
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The Story Hall

45 Years — Still Feels Like Yesterday

A typical all-out effort to make a catch by Clemente

“Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.” — Roberto Clemente

It did occur to me, after writing my last story about crying in baseball, that tomorrow will be the 45th anniversary of Roberto Clemente’s plane going down into the sea off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. That’s longer than the time that he lived — he was only 38 when he died.

So much has been said and written about him, but you could take it all and put it to the side, and just watch a film clip of him playing baseball, and then you will understand what words can’t adequately describe. Watch a clip of him with a group of kids — the joy on their faces, the joy on his. You’ll see what I’ve been talking about.

He loved playing the game, and there was a beauty in the way that he played it. You don’t even have to like baseball to see this, watching him play. He also loved people, especially kids, and understood that they were the future. He did everything in his power to reach out and share the joy he derived from playing baseball, and from living life to its fullest, with kids, and with anyone, really.

My cousin Michael Egan, who shares my love for baseball, having been infected with the same bug I was as a kid — watching Clemente play will do that to you — sent me a great article with a couple of short films, one about the guy who created the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh, and the other a tribute to Clemente. I could watch both fifty times each and never get tired of it. The following is an excerpt from the article:

“Anger for Roberto Clemente,” local Pittsburgh columnist Roy McHugh would write, “is the fuel that makes the wheels turn in his never-ending pursuit of excellence. When the supply runs low, Clemente manufactures some more.”

He did rage. In this way, he was like one of his heroes, Jackie Robinson. He was unwilling to simply accept what he saw as injustice. He was not one to say nothing.

“You writers are all the same,” he shouted at one reporter. “You don’t know a damn thing about me.” Over time, he earned the reporters’ respect and the fans’ respect not only with his glorious play — the wonderful arm, the line drives, the 166 triples he hit because he always ran out of the box hard — but because he softened, too. He matured. As the years went along and he became an established star, everyone could see Clemente becoming a more patient, understanding man. He sought to understand positions he did not agree with. He worked hard to help people in need. As David Maraniss said, “He was growing as a human being late in his career, the opposite trajectory of most athletes.”

Then there was the way Clemente died, tragically, heroically, just months after getting his 3,000th hit, when he went to Nicaragua to help after the terrible earthquake there, and his plane crashed. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame immediately, one of only two men (Lou Gehrig being the other) to have the normal five-year waiting period waived.

We’re nearly 45 years from the date of Clemente’s sudden death on Dec. 31, 1972, which came in the service of doing good and has left behind an enduring image of Clemente as a hero. This is as it should be. Every year, the Roberto Clemente Award is given out to the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to the team. The name “Clemente” has become holy. But he should also be remembered as a glorious ballplayer, one of the best who ever lived.

There was never one quite like him. You can talk about the .317 lifetime average, the four National League batting titles, the 12 Gold Glove Awards, the World Series heroics, but really, all you have to do is just watch him throw. That is enough to make you understand just how wonderful he was.

In the days after Clemente died, a Pittsburgh reporter named Phil Musick wrote one of my favorite lines about him.

Musick wrote: “When I heard he died, I wished that sometime I told him I thought he was a hell of a guy. Because he was, and now it’s too late to tell him there were things he did on a ball field that made me wish I was Shakespeare.”

That’s a marvelous thought, this idea of Clemente being so extraordinary to watch that he made a baseball writer wish he had better words to describe it.

But the reason I love that quote so much has little do with that. The reason I love that quote so much is … Musick was the reporter that Clemente shouted at in the clubhouse.

Forbes Field, where I watched many of Clemente’s, and the Pirates, games

My childhood had its moments, the glorious dysfunction of growing up in an alcoholic household, living in an almost constant state of confusion, wetting the bed until I was ten, all of that good stuff. But, the fact that I got to watch such an amazing human being live such an incredible life, on and off the field, for nearly ten years of that childhood — made it a rich experience. I truly was lucky to have found the very best of heroes in Roberto.

A lasting memory for me involving this wonderful man was the time I snuck into the Pirates’ Clubhouse, through an underground tunnel my brother Chris had shown me. A guard was in the process of throwing me out of there, when Clemente, seeing my anguish, said, “Joe, he’s with me. Let him go.” He let me hang there for another five minutes or so, then quietly said to me, “Now might be a good time to leave — we’re getting ready to take the field, soon.” It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for me. I would never forget his kindness.

One more quote that says it all, from one of the films I mentioned above — a major league ballplayer from Puerto Rico, got traded to the San Francisco Giants. There, a room off of the clubhouse often had a couple of old Giants greats hanging out, talking about the good old days — Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. Many baseball people include Mays in their top 5 list of greatest players. The new player stopped into the room one day and asked Mays, “What was Clemente like?” Without hesitation, Willie said, “Clemente was the best player I ever saw.”

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Hawkeye Pete Egan B.

Hawkeye Pete Egan B.

Connecting the dots. Storytelling helps me to make sense of this world, and of my life. I love writing and reading. Writing is like breathing, for me.

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