THE GREAT ONE
People today are different from those of the past. Take for instance the ancient Romans. For pleasure they drank wine, ate fruit, and watched slaves and gladiators mutilate, dilapidate, and kill each other.
We’re a kinder gentler society. We drink beer, eat hot dogs, and watch baseball...a much nicer sport...a nice gentle, quiet game...nobody gets killed.
Yeah, nobody gets killed. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with it? It wasn’t always like that you know.
Allow me to take you on a magical mystical trip back in time to those thrilling days of yesteryear when foundations rocked and the very walls of the stadium rumbled like a Roman Coliseum. When bolts of lightning shot across the spectrum and crashes of thunder reverberated through the stands almost drowned out by the cheers of bloodthirsty fans screaming for cadavers.
You’ve no need for modern-day reality special effects for this trip, just close your eyes and let your imagination take you away.
We’re at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The year doesn’t matter but it’s sometime during the mid-sixties and the stands are rocking!
It’s the top of the ninth inning and the Pirates are leading by a single run. The opposition has the bases loaded with one out...Good right-handed hitter at bat...
Stop thinking today baseball! Sure the situation looks bleak, but we’re in the sixties, remember? In those days the situation was just what the fans wanted.
The stands are rumbling like thunder as everyone stomps their feet on the floor. Shouts are heard, “Pitch him outside,” “Make him hit it to right.” You can feel the electricity!
Suddenly a long fly ball blast’s toward the outfield. The fans leave their seats and watch in awe as the right fielder routinely runs back and catches the ball with his back to the wall for the second out.
The runner on third base tags up and sprints for home. The fielder leans back and unleashes a throw to the plate. Eyes pop wide open and smiles beam across the faces of every fan as they watch a controlled bolt of lightning shoot in from the far depths of the stadium’s ivy covered bastion.
Nobody watches the runner...nobody cares.
All eyes are on the magnificent throw that roars in with no bounces and slams into the catcher’s mitt about a foot off the ground, so much ahead of the runner the catcher has to wait for him...label him Dead On Arrival!
The stadium erupts as delirious fans react to the play that won another game for the Pirates in a manner such as even imperial Rome never experienced.
I’m from those days so I know who the fielder is, but you are not. You look around for a person subdued but the fervor of the moment has infested them all. Finally you find someone catching his breath.
“Who is that guy?” you ask.
“Are you kidding, Stranger? That’s Roberto Clemente! We call him “The Great One!”
I slap you across the back of the head and you’re trip is over. You’re back in modern times where they have to shoot t-shirts to the fans and bring in clowns for excitement. You want to go back but it’s one trip to a customer. You ask for other good days incase you ever do get to return and I tell you any day is a good one. When Clemente played those things happened.
When The Great One went to work people died. There were those who tried to score from second base...Dead on Arrival at home plate. Those going from first to third...D.O.E...And the best, the very best were those tagging from third on a fly ball...Deader than a doornail! He knocked off more guys than Rome’s greatest gladiator.
Cincinnati had the swiftest runners. Vada Pinson was probably the fastest. In one game Roberto threw out three Reds who tried to score from third base on balls hit to the wall.
TWO OF THEM WERE VADA PINSON.
After the game Pinson remarked that the first ball was hit so deep he really didn’t run hard because he thought there was no way he was going to be thrown out. But on the second he said he ran as fast as he could and Clemente still had the ball waiting for him.
Very seldom did a throw by Clemente ever touch the ground. I guess he didn’t want to get the ball dirty.
I was at a game at Forbes Field sitting in my favorite spot, the Right Field Stands behind Clemente. These were great seats! Those stands were always full. Clemente was having a bit of a problem. Because of his reputation he wasn’t getting many assists for throwing runners out. Everyone was literally running to the next base and stopping right on the bag without taking a turn, (When was the last time you saw that in the big leagues?) On this particular day a hotshot rookie, who obviously didn’t know any better, hit a single to right and took a big turn around first base. Well, Clemente scooped it up, (Right in front of me) and leaned back lining up his throw to second base. As he came over his head with the throw he held on a little longer and flung a bullet to first.
The first baseman, Don Clendenon, was standing on the bag with his hands on his hips blowing a bubble with his gum as he often did. Before he knew what happened he almost swallowed the gum and instinctively covered his stomach with his hands in self-defense. The ball hit off the heal of his glove and sailed into the first base dugout. The runner was a good six feet from the bag. He ended up at second base and they gave an error to Clemente for throwing behind the runner even though he was a dead duck. We looked for that scorekeeper after the game but he must have snuck out through a tunnel or something?
When you see an event happening over and over you tend to expect it and maybe even take it for granted. Like for instance when a runner is on first base and tries to take third on a hit through the infield, only to be gunned down by a ball that comes in no higher than six feet with no bounces. I have visions etched in my mind of third baseman Richie Hebner holding out the ball in his glove waiting for the runner, time after time after time.
He was an outfielder like no other. He ran into the gaps and caught balls others just looked at. Willie Mays perfected the basket catch. He would hold his glove level and catch fly balls at his waist. Clemente had his own style. He held his arms fully extended and caught the ball down by his knees, then flicked it underhanded to second base. It was comical. Both of them always caught with two hands.
A fly ball is hit down the right field line, the umpire is signaling “Foul Ball!” Suddenly here comes Roberto running at full speed. He’s running straight for the stands. He’ll crash into the seats. All at once he falls to the ground, catches the ball while flat on his back, and slides ten feet afterwards. Another comical feat.
I’m sorry kids today missed the Roberto that we all knew and loved. He was the perfect player to idolize and mimic in the outfield – but I would never tell a youngster to try to bat a ball like him. He had the most unorthodox way of hitting I ever saw.
In his younger days I used to smile a lot when he came to bat for the first time. He would pretend the batter’s box was rough and rocky. He would call timeout and hold his bat in the air while scrapping the outside line with his foot pretending to level it out. His spikes would chew up the chalk line and dust would fly. He did this for a good five minutes. When he was done the entire outside line was gone from the batter’s box. Then he took his stance – Outside the box! That’s right, he stood so far away from the plate that he would have been called out if the line had been there.
Opposing pitchers viewed this as a good thing and pitched him outside figuring he was too far away to ever hit the ball. Boy were they wrong! He attacked the ball! He drove line drives to all parts of the field, particularly right center. He had more triples than anyone else in the league.
Clemente was not a big slugging homerun hitter. He hit a few but chose to hit line drives for average, which is a good batting philosophy, however he did have power.
Prior to every game at Forbes Field batting practice took place under a big batting cage. Before the game started the ground crew pushed the cage way out to the wall in centerfield. It remained there for the entire game and hardly ever got in the way. The wall at that point was 457 feet from home plate. I was at a game where Roberto hit two rising line drives over that cage and out of the park.
Everytime he came to the plate the potential was there for something big to happen and usually did. Folks would plan their snack trips and restroom stops so they wouldn’t miss him. Guys waiting in line for a beer would actually leave the line when he came to bat.
I was at a game where he swung and missed at a third strike. He swung so hard he fell down backwards and caught himself with his left hand. The ball bounced out in front of the catcher a few feet. Roberto sprang to his feet and sprinted toward first base. The ball was not far from the catcher and the attempt was futile, but he made a close play out of it because he hustled. That was two years before he died. He was already a Super Star. He didn’t need to hustle. But he did...that’s the way he played!
I’ve seen him try to score from second base on a wild pitch. I’ve never seen him make it but you can be sure the catcher never lolly-gagged after the ball.
Those days are gone! The game lives on...but it doesn’t sizzle anymore, there’s no spark, no electricity, no Roberto Clemente. He was complete, he did it all. He played the game because he loved it!
More than anything else Roberto Clemente never forgot where he came from. He never talked without speaking of his family and his people in Puerto Rico. That little island gave us the biggest man...The Great One!
It is not far fetched to say that during his entire career Clemente was responsible for an average of at least one run in every game he played. Either by driving one in, or stopping one from being scored. Realistically that is probably a low number.