Before he became a saint, he was just a scintillating entertainer.
Before he gave his life to help others, he just gave his all to help win ballgames.
Before everyone began to worship Roberto Clemente, I was already on knees in front of his altar. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I had the privilege of regularly watching the idol of my youth, who remains the most electric athlete I’ve seen in a long life of watching and chronicling athletes.
Three snapshots that won’t fade from my mind’s album:
1. It was late in the nightcap of one of those makeup twi-night doubleheaders, the ones without a curfew. The first game with the Cardinals had gone extra-innings, and Game 2 was also in the 10th. The Cards seemed assured of beating both the Pirates and the rising sun: Bases loaded, one out. The batter (I believe it was Bill White) pulls a wicked line drive to right field that has base hit and two runs written all over it.
The ball lands about 10 feet in front of Clemente, who has already broken into a sudden sprint toward it. He short-hops the ball and in virtually the same motion fires a typical strike to the catcher – forcing Brock on a clean hit to the outfield. The Pirates go on to win a few innings later.
2. When Harry Walker inherited Danny Murtaugh’s job as Pirates manager in 1965, he also inherited what many construed as the Clemente paradox: Great hitter, weak run-producer. A selfish player who lived for his average?
Walker waited a season to see for himself, and he saw Clemente win another batting title with a .329 average — but produce only 65 RBIs with his 194 hits, only 10 of which were home runs.
The following spring, Walker met with Clemente and bluntly asked him to try to hit for more power and not focus on his batting average. Given his legendary pride, Clemente felt insulted, but he also thought, “Okay, if that’s what you want …”
Harry Walker managed the Pirates for two more years, and in those seasons Clemente hit 52 homers and drove in 229 runs — while still batting .336.
He could turn it on at will, like that.
3. Then, just the man’s mannerisms, an everyday joy.
When he swung and missed, he would spin around like a top, as if trying to screw himself into the ground. The basket catches; he rarely caught a routine fly above the knees. Routine throws were always underhanded, with a whip-like motion that put more mustard on the ball than others could generate overhand. And when he had to make a serious throw, he again had no equal — but he did have radar for instincts. He would dig balls out of the right-field corner and have them flying toward the infield even before he was fully turned around — always on the mark, on the fly.
As another round of Roberto Clemente Award talks begin, thought you might like to know a little about the ballplayer behind the humanitarian legend.