Monday, December 31, 2007
The best baseball had to offer
Today, December 31, 2007, marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the death of Roberto Clemente. Let's look at why we must remember him, and what he meant, by looking at what happened in baseball this year:
In this steroid soaked year, when we saw Floyd Landis lose his final appeal of his disqualification for steroid use following last year's apparent Tour de France victory, Olympic medalist Marion Jones reverse years of denials and even a lawsuit alleging defamation to finally admit using steroids, and damning revelations involving many athletes in many sports, no sport was hit as hard as baseball. It was a year when Mark McGwire, just a decade removed from being named as the most admired man in America, couldn't even garner a quarter of the votes on Hall of Fame ballots-- suggesting that Big Mac won't ever make it to Cooperstown (since three quarters are needed.) It was a year that saw Barry Bonds break one of the greatest records in the game, and then not long after that get hit with an indictment for perjury in connection with his testimony to a federal grand jury investigating steroid use. And then it turned out that Bonds had a lot of company. A couple of weeks ago the Mitchell report came out and named scores of present and former players and slammed everyone from the commissioners office and the owners to the players union for fostering the use of performance-enhancing drugs at every level of the game.
Roberto Clemente was the opposite of all of that. To begin with, he was a great player. Probably nobody ever played better in right field. He could have played center, to be sure, but he was best in right and was a consistent gold glove winner. Clemente had a gun for an arm, and could throw strikes to home or to third base from anywhere in the outfield. In fact he rarely had to do so after the first few years because other teams learned that trying to run for the extra base was foolish if Clemente was fielding the ball. But when someone tried, they learned quickly that his arm didn't deteriorate, either in strength or in accuracy. He also got 3,000 hits. Unlike the fictional hero from the movie, Mr. 3000 (who gets 3000 hits, 'guaranteeing' his hall of fame induction and immediately retires with his team in a pennant race) Clemente finished with 3000 hits, but no one knew that his last regular season hit on the last day of the season was destined to be his last. His last game was a real disappointment-- in the 1972 playoff against the Reds, the winning run scored on a play that Clemente and the rest of the defending world champion Pirates could only watch helplessly, probably the least memorable ending ever to a thrilling playoff series--a wild pitch. But Clemente and the rest of the Pirates looked forward to getting back to the playoffs and trying to win another World Series in 1973. Clemente's 3000 hits would likely be higher if he hadn't missed a lot of games because of injuries (though he played hurt a lot too, and some of those injuries were caused by the fact that he wasn't a bit cautious about doing things like barreling into catchers if that was what he had to do to score or running into the outfield wall in order to make a catch.)
Ironically, in what is looked at more and more as another disappointment by many baseball fans, he just barely missed being voted onto baseball's all-century team in 2000. You may recall that that year it was all about Pete Rose. Rose, although he played before the steroids era, is banned from baseball for life because he gambled on himself (though always betting on his team to win.) Regardless of how anyone feels about Rose (and for the record I am a Reds fan) the fact is that the voting on the all-century team came down (thanks to the media looking for the 'big story') to a referendum on Rose. Now, Rose is a great player and there have been a lot of great outfielders but one has to wonder, given the fact that Rose barely edged Clemente for that final spot whether Clemente should have been on the team.
Certainly he should have, if baseball really means what it claims to mean about the character of players.
And that's where Clemente is really the greatest of players.
His code of ethics started with his family (where Roberto was the youngest of seven children). Both his parents worked very hard to support the family and taught Clemente about the value of work. They also taught him the value of honesty. He wrote in his biography (published just about the time of his death) that while playing for a Puerto Rican team for forty dollars a month, he was offered a contract in 1954 for $6000 by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He agreed verbally to accept it, and shortly thereafter got a phone call from the Braves organization offering him $20,000. This was a huge amount of money, especially in the early 1950's in Puerto Rico, and he called his mother for advice. Luisa Clemente had no doubts about what he should do. "You gave your word, you keep your word." Clemente signed with the Dodgers (though after one year in the minor leagues Clemente's contract was sent to the Pittsburgh organization via the draft, which worked differently then than it does today.)
But Clemente did a lot more than just show exemplary personal character. He realized he had been blessed to be in a very fortunate position, having the talent and having been given the opportunity to become an American baseball star, while others were not so fortunate. So he decided to give back, not only to his family and his community, but to the world.
His most famous quote was,
"Anytime you have an opportunity to make things better and you don't, then you are wasting your time on this Earth"
And more to the point he lived it. Clemente got involved in charity work, both in Pittsburgh and in his native Puerto Rico, before anyone expected baseball players to do that (remember he played while there was still a 'reserve clause' that essentially gave team owners the right to tell players what they would get paid with little recourse for the players other than to quit the team and even the highest paid ballplayers were paid less, even in real dollars than bench players make today.) Partly because of his charity work and partly because of his success as a Latino ballplayer, Clemente was idolized throughout Latin America, and it was for this reason that he would visit the area often for charitable work, knowing that his presence alone would lift the morale of millions (though he did a lot more than sign autographs.) He did the hard work, often working with his hands distributing food, medicine and other items to people who desperately needed them. He gave generously to those who were most in need.
And so it was hardly out of character for Roberto Clemente to do what he did on December 31, 1972. Most people who could were celebrating New Year's Eve festivities on that day. Clemente too was back home in Puerto Rico, where he would have been most welcome and honored at any celebration on the island. But he heard on the news about an earthquake that had struck Managua, Nicaragua. Thousands of people were injured or homeless. So instead of going to a party or enjoying a quiet evening at home he went to the airport in the middle of the night and helped load blankets, food and other relief supplies onto a rickety old airplane that was to fly to Nicaragua. And then he climbed onto the plane, to be there and help unload it when it landed.
The plane took off and a few minutes later it crashed into the sea.
And baseball has not been quite the same for thirty-five years.