The Story Hall
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The Story Hall

Tears for Heroes

The great one, Roberto Clemente — hero on and off the field, the one hero who never let me down

Today was my second session with the counselor, and damn if he didn’t get me crying again. Only this time, I was crying over baseball, of all things!

I know, I know, the manager of the Rockford Peaches, Jimmuy Dugan, (played by Tom Hanks in the movie, “A League of Their Own”), claims that there is no crying in baseball. However, for me, if you want to see some tears shed over baseball, just get me talking about my childhood hero, Roberto Clemente.

We went on kind of a sports tangent today, a session I can only describe as a getting-to-know-me-better session. It wasn’t nearly as intense as the first session was, but we did get into some more relevant stuff towards the end of it.

Gazing back — what’s back there? If it helps, I’ll look a bit closer — Iceland, 2010

The session began with him noting my license plate number and asking me about it (“54FYTN” — derived from a hockey term, “Five for Fightin’”, which is the typical length of a penalty one gets for fighting on the ice — a five minute major).

Somehow, we went from talking hockey to my youth spent as a ballpark rat at old Forbes Field, where I escaped the drama of my crazy dysfunctional family many a game, from age 9 to 15, and of course, this led to talking about my childhood hero and idol, Clemente.

See, last session, he’d asked, as I described the chaos of my childhood home, “Who was looking out for you?” What I started to realize, between that session and this, is that in an environment like that, others may try to look out for you, and they did, especially a couple of my older brothers. But in that sort of an environment, everyone is too busy looking out for themselves. If you don’t, you’ll get left behind.

McCauley Caulkin, from Home Alone

I did get left behind a few times, literally. They just missed me, forgot about me — I was like that kid on “Home Alone”. There were too many moving parts in that family, and at times, I was one part too many for them to keep up with.

I quickly learned that I needed to be able to look out for myself if I was going to survive all that chaos, so I learned to do just that. I became very independent. I didn’t need all them, all that craziness. I’d just go my own way.

Forbes Field, with the Cathedral of Learning looming over the left field bleachers

My trips to Forbes Field were my favorite pastime as a kid. There, I was in my element, I was king in my own little world, there. My brother Chris, who was truly the closest thing I had to a father figure I looked up to, though my obvious devotion to him was apparently an embarrassment for him as I got older, taught me the ropes at that old ballpark, the couple of times he took me there, so I knew how to get around.

One of the best tricks he taught me was how to sneak into the players’ clubhouse, from a dirt tunnel that ran under the stands, a secret escape route for the players if they wanted to avoid reporters and fans after the game. That same tunnel was our way into the clubhouse, if we had the gumption to sneak all the way in.

Clemente making a great catch — this was routine for him

I did, a few times, sneak into the visiting team’s clubhouse, but usually got found out pretty quickly by the security guards, and summarily hauled out of there, usually by the scruff of my neck, kicking and arms waving, to no avail. But, the one time that I snuck into the Pirates’ clubhouse, I was standing there, awe-struck, seeing my hometown heroes up-close and personal, half-dressed and engaged in light-hearted banter with each other, when a guard came up to me and challenged what I was doing in there, and asked who was I with?

I looked around, scared, and was about to take off, to avoid his grip on the back of my neck — that hurts! — when Clemente came over and said to the guard, “He’s with me, Joe. He’s alright — let him go.” It was in the telling of this part that the tears really came.

Someone — an adult — had actually looked out for me! This superstar, amazing baseball player who I adored the ground he walked upon, had stood up for me, and had my back. He had noticed me! He let me sit there for another five or ten minutes, taking it all in, until he finally sidled over to me, and whispered, “Now might be a good time to go find your seat, my little friend. We have to go out for batting practice, shortly.”

Reyjakvik, 2010

I’d been a huge fan of the player up to that moment, but that’s when I became an even bigger fan of the man that he was. I guess I’d never thought of it in terms of someone looking out for me, but in this telling, that insight emerged, and I suddenly realized why that ballplayer had meant so much to me, from that moment forward.

The day I learned of his plane going down into the sea, off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on New Year’s Eve, 1972, as he attempted to fly relief supplies to Nicaragua, I cried as hard as I had ever cried in my life, up to then.

The graceful, heroic Clemente

I’d lost the one hero from my childhood who’d never let me down. Baseball had lost their best player, in my book. I’d even lost interest in baseball after that, for a number of years. It just wasn’t the same game without Roberto in the middle of the action. He made the game come alive. He’d had my back.

“Damn, Doc, today you even got me crying over a baseball player! You’ve gotta stop doing this!” He laughed, and we had an even better session than the first one.

Iceland, 2010

I think he’s quickly realized that he has a live one on his hands. I told him of my plan to live to be 100, in good shape all the way. I’m expecting him to help me out a little bit with that plan — to help me get my head on a little straighter, so I don’t mess it up with unforced fumbles along the way.

From what I’ve seen in two sessions, he is just the guy to help me make it there. He’s helping me a lot with the right here, right now, which I do need, right now. I thank my lucky stars I’ve been led to him.

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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.