Tuesday, April 07, 2009

the best baseball player ever, in my opinion, was roberto clemente, who played right field for the pittsburgh pirates back in the late 60's, when i was about 13. my brother would win free tickets to ball games on account of good grades, and we would take a trolley car to downtown pittsburgh, then transfer and go out to oakland, in the shadow of the cathedral of learning, where old forbes field had this enormous right field which was clemente's territory. and the pirate pitchers were bad in those years; he had lots of action out there, chasing line drives that landed all over the territory. games had football scores like 14-11, 16-9, etc. as both teams were always hitting a lot, and we'd always curse the manager for leaving the pitcher in too long.

he was the best player because he played every minute with a passionate intensity that was unmatched in baseball by anyone, ever. No matter whether he was diving for a ball, which million-dollar-players no longer do, or running out a ground ball, he was always a hundred percent into the game. he was like this about everything; you could tell when he spoke, even though his english wasn't great; he was just totally focused on doing his best, and there wasn't much else to him, except maybe helping those who came behind him, those who still needed a hand; in fact he died in a plane crash delivering emergency supplies to survivors of an earthquake in nicaragua. for this maybe he should be elected to sainthood, i don't know, but all i can say is, from all those years, there was one play that i'll never forget. it was one of those huge games, maybe 15-12, and the other team had the bases loaded and some guy hit the ball way out to the center corner of right field, deep in the ivy behind the warning track where poor roberto was chasing the ball and trying to separate it from the wherever it rolled; people were rounding the bases and scoring on the poor pirates and everybody in the stands was in a foul mood. when lo and behold, roberto turned around and from deep in right, 390 feet or more, threw a perfect line-drive strike to home, and caught the runner. a perfect throw, unforgettable. he was a hitter, actually, and a runner, a diver-for-line-drives; he had a glove; he was an all-star. but even his throwing was perfect. from 390 feet; you don't see that today.

clemente was puerto rican, but i've been thinking of him a lot as i begin to prepare for my trip to the dominican republic in june. this is a place where people live for baseball, where baseball is an avenue, a way to connect with the world, much as technology in the classroom is today. i learned from watching clemente those days; he was clearly much better than stargell, or any of the other stars we saw coming through, including mays, mccovey, banks, brock & flood. of course he was our own, a pirate; but, he was also just better than everyone else. he mastered his craft, every aspect of it. he remained humble about it. he never forgot the people he'd left behind. he didn't hesitate to dive for a ball, or to jump on a plane to help someone. most of all, he was grateful for his opportunity to show his skill, and this could even have been a game that the championship was not riding on, as those pirates usually weren't in the running in late summer, or even early summer. but that was classic baseball, baseball as it was meant to be played. and, someday, it will be played that way again.


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