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Roberto Clemente

The Man Behind The Bat

It is hard to capture the essence of Roberto Clemente with mere words.

Those who saw him play remember him as an outlier, a one-of-a-kind talent whose exploits on the baseball field stand alone, not to be mimicked by any other player before or since.

To later generations, he is just a name -- a Hall of Famer, sure -- but just another excellent baseball player. And that is a shame.

For Roberto Clemente was passion and grace wrapped in a baseball uniform. And since those qualities are hard to quantify, it perhaps will be easier to toss out statistics that leave him in the Pantheon of the baseball gods.


Roberto Clemente made his first All-Star game in the magical 1960 season that saw the Pirates defeat the mighty New York Yankees in one of the biggest upsets in World Series history. He proceeded to make every subsequent all-star team through 1971, when the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles for yet another World Championship.


At the plate, he was an undisciplined hitter who sprayed hits to all fields. Low pitch, high pitch, inside, outside, nothing was safe when Roberto Clemente was at bat. And against all baseball logic, he made it work. He won his first batting title in 1961 when he hit .351, and would collect three more batting crowns over the course of his career, winning in 1967 with a career-high .357 average.


Clemente was not known as a power hitter -- partly because he played much of his career in the cavernous Forbes Field, but he did total 240 homers over the course of his career. In 1966, as the story goes, his manager told him they needed more power out of Clemente’s number-three slot in the batting order. The Result? Clemente pounded out a career-high 29 homers and finished with 119 RBIs.


In the field he was unparalleled, winning 12 consecutive Gold Gloves for his exploits in right field. He was best known for the cannon arm that ended many a rally by opponents. In one year, 1961, he threw out an astonishing 27 baserunners, a figure made all the  more remarkable because opposing teams already knew not to run on “The Great One.” To see Clemente scoop up a ball in right field and throw it on a line to home plate was truly a sight to behold.


To do Clemente justice, it might be best to depend on the words of others -- people closely associated with the game when Roberto played.The revered baseball writer Roger Angell put it simply: “He played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before...As if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field.”


Former Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeworth summed up his view: “Well, I said to myself there’s a boy who can do two things as well as any man who ever lived. Nobody could throw any better than that and nobody could run any better than that.” But it was former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn who managed to capture both Clemente’s skill level and his essence: Kuhn said, “He gave the term ‘complete’ a new meaning. He made the word ‘superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.” But as telling as they are, words are just words. For those of us lucky enough to have watched him play, it is the images that stick.

  • Clemente barreling into the right field corner, skidding to a stop and scooping up the ball in one motion, twirling and then       uncorking a line-drive throw to nail an unsuspecting baserunner.

  •  Roberto slashing a drive into the gap and racing pell-mell to third for a triple, with his arms and legs akimbo, flying in all directions yet propelling him forward at stunning speed.

  •  Number 21 at the plate, staring out at the pitcher, hips curled, waiting patiently on the next offering. And when it comes, the body quickly uncoils as Clemente lashes at a pitch low and away, well outside the strike zone -- and whipsaws it on a line into the outfield.

  •  Of the fans, shouting “Arriba” every time Clemente came to the plate.

  •  Or they might be personal memories, of the tattered Little Leaguer getting an autograph from the patient Clemente in an alleyway leading away from Forbes Field, or of the Guatemalan exchange student whose dreams came true when The Great One agreed to meet her on the Forbes Field infield, the two chatting away a mile-a-minute in Spanish, he with a slight grin on his face, her's flushed with excitement.


None of this truly captures the essence of Roberto Clemente, a great baseball player, a humanitarian, and a loving father. There is perhaps no higher tribute in the game today than the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the person who exhibits sportsmanship and humanitarianism in the same vein as Clemente did.


Renowned baseball writer Jim Murray gave a valiant effort to sum up Clemente when he wrote, shortly after Clemente died:
    “The side of Roberto that everybody missed was that he was a kind man. (And) you never heard of him doing a disreputable thing." 


All the tributes and stories paint a nice picture of The Great One, but you really had to have been there. Roberto Clemente was, truly, one of a kind. We will not see his like again.

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