Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A hero's day

I became geography's orphan because of Roberto Clemente.

I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan who grew up 320 miles and two states away in Indiana, dead center in Cubs-Tigers-White Sox country. It was the 1960s and the Lumber Company -- Clemente and Pops Stargell and Manny Sanguillen and Al Oliver -- was all the rage, and I got swept up. But mostly it was because of Clemente -- a legendary hypochondriac who was always moaning and groaning about this ache or that, then went out and played baseball the way a god would play it.

He hit for average, he hit for power, he ran the bases like a banshee wind. And no one ever played right field with more sheer grace. Watching him roam his domain was like watching Nureyev dance or Yo-Yo Ma play the cello. There was music in it -- and, at the end, a clap of thunder when he uncorked another sniper throw from that cannon of an arm.

Simply put, Clemente was the most mesmerizing baseball player I ever saw. And so of course I am going to pause to remember him today, which Major League Baseball has deemed Roberto Clemente Day.

There a million reasons to take that pause. Here, more eloquently stated than I ever could, are just a few of them.

So much truth there -- particularly the observation that Clemente is far more revered in death than he was in life, or likely would be if he were playing now. He was an intelligent, prideful man who suffered fools and bigots not at all. And that likely wouldn't go over well at a time when presidential candidates (or at least one) openly pander to the sort of racism, bigotry and ignorance Clemente, with his keen sense of social justice, not only refused to tolerate but openly raised hell about.

I can just imagine the enemies he would make among the yahoos, had he come along 60 years later than he did. And I can only daydream about what he'd say about the Game Show Host, and just how loudly and persistently he'd say it.

That's why I have a Clemente jersey hanging in my closet at home. It's why I have photos of him all over our den. And it's why I have his baseball card on one of the bookshelves in my office at Manchester University.

It is, of course, on the top shelf. But you probably knew that.



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