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A Vivid Memory of Roberto Clemente



By Jed Weisberger ~ December 31st, 2012. Filed under: MLB.

I can remember the day vividly. I was a senior in college and I heard the announcement on KDKA radio,

“Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente, who was overseeing the delivery of supplies to earthquake-ravaged Managua, Nicaragua, died when his relief plane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean off Isla Verde, Puerto Rico.’’

Clemente, who had completed his 18th season with the Pirates – a trailblazer for the hundreds of Latin players in the game today, had an arm no contemporary player could match. A strikingly handsome man, he had a commanding presence, still visible in Baseball’s Hall of Fame, to which he was elected in a special procedure in 1973.

Sure he batted .317 for his career – for those who prefer sabermetrics, his OBP was .834 – but one memory of Clemente and baseball remains a highlight more than four decades later.

Early in the 1970 season, as the Pirates prepared to say good-bye to Forbes Field (Three Rivers Stadium would open July 16, 1970), a group of us went to see a game in the park nearby Schenley Park for the last time.

I forget which opponent faced the Pirates that day, but, as you will see, that was hardly important in this context. The fact it was a Saturday day game was.

As collegians, we always tried to get to the game in time for batting practice. Maybe one could acquire a ball, or a cracked bat. We also enjoyed watching Clemente shag flies in Forbes Field’s massive right field, and his line-drive tosses to the plate.

After Clemente finished his pregame work in the outfield, he trotted in toward the dugout, which was just to our left. At the same time, a baseball got away from someone and rolled to the low railing at the edge of the seats.

A young boy, probably about 8, reached for the ball and stumbled over the railing. As soon as he grabbed the ball, a security guard began screaming at him, took the baseball and threatened to eject him from the stadium.

Neither the boy nor the security guard realized Clemente was standing about 15 feet away, observing the conversation. As the boy began walking with his head down, Clemente put his hand on his shoulder and told him to stay where he was.

He also called the security guard over.

“Give the boy the ball,’’ Clemente told the security guard sternly. “You give the boy the ball. This is a young fan who is excited to be here. Why would you treat a young fan like this? What did he do?’’

The security guard, with a, “Yes, Mr. Clemente,’’ gave the young fan the ball.  He also signed it for the youngster. Today, that fellow, nearing 50, has that ball as both a valuable and prized possession.

I have covered baseball on all levels for 35 years. I have been there when the Pirates, Yankees and Phillies have won World Series.  Watching Clemente’s efforts with a young fan are as pure a baseball expression as the World Series triumphs.

One regret, since I staffed my first big-league game in 1974, is that I never covered Clemente. Years later, I did visit with Vera and Luis at the Roberto Clemente Sports City in Carolina, P.R., and at their magnificent home with “21” on the lawn on the hill, overlooking all of San Juan. Good people!

All that is missing from that family is a beautiful man, whose contributions to the game grow and grow, who died at age 38 wanting to help his fellow man.

 

 

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