Monday, February 22, 2016

at my mom's memorial, in las cruces on sunday, i saw an old friend who we had basically grown up with. her dad had taken me to my first baseball games, in detroit, and her mom was responsible for me practicing piano. i told her to thank her mom and i told her i had a story to tell her dad, who i like to discuss baseball with. the question of course was whether al kaline or roberto clemente was the best baseball player ever, and she admitted that his view might be colored by being an avid tiger fan. but i insisted on telling my side of the story and having her relay it to him.

back in the sixties clemente played right field for the pirates, and had to cover an expanse of forbes field in pittsburgh that was quite large, very green, ivy on the walls. the pirates had lousy pitching those days, so he really had to run a lot - balls were hit all over the place, lots of home runs, and fortunately he and his teammates were good hitters too, so most games were like 14-11 or 16-13, football-type scores. clemente always led the league in triples, because he was a shrewd baserunner and a good hitter; he also hit in the clutch, and he was a great fielder.

one day the pirates were winning one of those high-hitting games though it was the end of the season and they really weren't going to win it all. an opponent hit the ball way back to the wall in right-center field and clemente went tearing after it, all the way back to the ivy. he pulled the ball out of the ivy, pivoted, and threw the ball in to home, a line drive maybe 400 feet. amazing! it caught the runner by about a mile. i've never seen anything like it.

at the memorial people spoke about my mother - her accomplishments with the league of women voters, with the library, and with the new york state health department, for whom she 'wrote the book.' my job, however, was to give the kids' perspective. i'm a middle child, so i saw it kind of like one of those high-scoring games where really there were things happening all over the place. i gave a speech telling how she was always there for us, how we saw her as kids who competed for her attention. my voice shook and i fought off tears as i spoke, but many of my relatives cried a lot upon hearing it. it occurred to me when it was over that in a lot of ways i felt like the goal of life is to be like roberto clemente - to be totally present, in every minute and in every game, to do your best and to absolutely put the ball right exactly where it's supposed to be. life is busy and full of those struggles, to run and run, to pull a ball out of the ivy, but when it's your turn, and you turn around to face the audience, you're ready with what you've got, and you bring it right on in there. so i'd like to think of that as my roberto clemente speech. actually i'd like everything i do to be like that one throw, but, you know, i just don't do everything as well as he did everything.

my mom wasn't much into baseball; neither was my dad, nor even the woman who i asked to transport the story to her dad. she may or may not get the essence of how great he was, or how great that seemed to me. sometimes, in this world, we find ourselves at the way back corner of the wall, a wall covered with ivy, which is basically struggles that nobody else can even see. the world's attention is on us, whether it is complete, or rapturous, or high-staked, or whatever. we are called upon to bring it home. hitting the relay man is not quite enough. being twenty feet wide doesn't make it either. we know what we have to do, the only question is whether we have really gathered up the skills to see the whole project through to its best conclusion. I saw in that situation a guy who had mastered every skill relevant to his situation - and the throwing was perhaps the least noticeable, if you think about it; nobody ever mentions his throwing. He was a hitter, a runner, a fielder - a shrewd player all around. but he could throw a 420-foot fastball, right across the plate. best player ever.

as it turned out, he was a pretty good guy as well.


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