Wednesday, March 18, 2020
A Memorable Pirate
As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
In the wake of recent columns, the requests for “more sports” have swelled and have risen in there, shall we say, passion. I get it. When you pay to see the Rolling Stones, you expect to hear them play “Satisfaction”. A few deeper cuts are fine, but hits better dominate the set list. Or using a more humble and appropriate comparison for this column, when you order a grilled hot dog, it better arrive in charred glory. And so, here comes your grilled summer dog, in word form - sports with a side of nuthin’. Simple. Classic. The people have spoken.
To stoke the fires of inspiration, this bleacher bum went mobile, taking a road trip in search new life and new civilizations, or at least different lives and different civilizations. What I found, at the confluence of three rivers, was also the confluence of two right fielders, a powerful message about what resonates across generations and this column.
One of my favorite baseball players never suited up for my favorite team - the Orioles in my youth, the Nationals since arriving/returning to D.C. I never even saw him play. He died, tragically and far too soon, in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Roberto Clemente was 38 years old.
Clemente played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His baseball resume - 15-time All-Star, 12 Gold Gloves, four batting titles, a World Series and league MVP award, and election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 – speak to his all-around game and exceptional career. The year following his death, Topps issued an iconic 1973 Clemente card that captures his entire career statistics, including exactly 3,000 hits, the last of which was recorded in his final at bat. It is a must-have for any collector. As for his HOF induction the year after his death, the traditional five-year waiting period was waived, in part because of Clemente’s baseball accomplishments but also as a sign of respect for a man who died doing what he devoted much of his personal time to – humanitarian endeavors.
In a recent visit to Pittsburgh, Clemente’s legacy was still omnipresent – the “three rivers” city is adorned with a Clemente museum and statute, and a street and bridge bearing his name. That Clemente is still so revered nearly 50 years after his last game, is a testament to his baseball excellence; it is a more powerful statement about how Clemente lived his life.
While pondering Clemente’s greatness at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, I couldn’t help but think of Bryce Harper, a modern-era right fielder and recent recipient of a $330M contract. Admittedly, it is an unfair comparison. Harper isn’t and likely won’t ever be the player Clemente was. One hit for average, played hard, was among the best defensive outfielders ever and recorded a fair superior and more consistent Wins-Above-Replacement (Clemente); the other basically just hits bombs and has built a fame-based brand loosely connected to successful baseball (Harper).
I found Clemente’s sustained stature in Pittsburgh reassuring, both because society is sometimes more fascinated by players like Harper and not those of more substance, and because Clemente didn’t get lost in a city flush with HOF players across multiple sports. Instead, he feels like the most important athlete in the city’s history. But why did Clemente rise above the likes of Honus Wagner, Mario Lemieux and the legion of Steelers greats? With all due respect to those other Pittsburgh icons, Clemente memory remains so strong because he best represents the admired and elusive (in all humans, not just athletes) coexistence of professional and personal excellence. Baseball was only part of Clemente’s story; his humanitarian work was his true legacy. As Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Roberto Clemente made the people of Pittsburgh and world feel a little better about baseball and the arc of human history. As a short trip to Pittsburgh proved, that clearly has not been forgotten.