Monday, December 31, 2012

Re-run Monday: Run, Roberto! Run!

Forty years ago this evening, the great Roberto Clemente died. His is a story that cannot be shared often enough. Here's what I wrote about him in 2011 the day after Derek Jeter passed Clemente on baseball's 3,000 hit list. Yeah, it's about a baseball player. But it's about so much more.

("Tweets of the Year" later today!)

Baseball fans all over America were celebrating Saturday when Yankee great Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit.

Not me. I love Jeter, but I was on the edge of my seat until he banged out hit no. 3,001.

The 3,000 hit club in Major League Baseball is one of the most grand achievements in all of sports. Only 28 men in baseball history have had that many hits.

That’s 28 out of -- who knows? -- maybe 1,000,000 athletes talented enough to play professional baseball.

It’s taken professional baseball 166 years for 28 batters to secure 3,000 hits (only two, the disgraced Pete Rose and the disgraceful Ty Cobb, have more than 4,000).

It could take another 100 years for the list to get to 50.

When that happens, anyone engaged enough to look will ponder at least two names: the first and the last.

We don’t know who the first will be, but we know who’ll be last.

It’ll be Roberto Clemente. He’s forever last with precisely 3,000 hits.

It’s probably already happening in places other than Pittsburgh, and I hope I’m there at least once when it does someplace.

A group of kids will be gathering at some ballpark where the club is listed (PNC Park in Pittsburgh has a 3,000 Hit Club Tavern). They’ll go through the list and they’ll come to Clemente.

They’ll wonder, gee, what’s this guy’s story? Did he hang on for a bunch of years just to get his 3,000th hit?

They, in fact, made a 2004 movie, “Mr. 3,000,” about a guy who did just that. It starred the late, great Bernie Mac.

It wasn’t like that with Clemente. His last regular season at bat was his 3,000th hit, a stand-up double on September 30, 1972, in Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium. He finished the season batting .310.

Just 92 days later he was dead. He was 38.

That’s compelling stuff right there. If you’re a storyteller, it gets better.

Clemente died a saintly death.

He is considered the Jackie Robinson of Latina players and Latin players throughout baseball to this day consider it a great honor to wear his number 21.

He spent much of his off-seasons doing tireless humanitarian work in impoverished Central American villages like the Puerto Rican one where he was born the youngest of seven children.

When Managua, Nicaragua, was devastated by a massive earthquake on December 23 the newest member of the 3,000 hit club began arranging emergency relief flights. He’d been in Managua three weeks previous.

He was furious when he learned three planeloads of aid packages were diverted by corrupt officials of the then-ruling Somoza government never reaching the victims.

Clemente, who played his entire 17-year career as a Pittsburgh Pirate, decided he’d personally oversee the fourth flight. He knew his presence in a land where he was idolized could make a crucial difference.

The overloaded flight crashed in the Caribbean shortly after takeoff from Puerto Rico.

The body of the pilot and part of the fuselage were recovered. A flight bag belonging to Clemente was all they ever found of the great Roberto.

Of his teammates, with whom he’d won the 1971 World Series when he was awarded MVP, only one did not attend the memorial service.

It was catcher Manny Sanguillen. In a grief so poignant it practically shrieks, Sanguillen instead spent weeks diving in the waters where the plane went down in the hopes of recovering the body of his friend.

Baseball in 1954 instituted a mandatory five year waiting period for any former baseball player to be considered for the Hall of Fame.

For Clemente, it was waived and three months after his death he was awarded baseball’s highest honor. He’s the only player in more than 57 years deemed worthy of the waiver.

There’ve been many books written about Clemente, most recently by David Maraniss.

But there’s never been a memorable movie about this most unforgettable man.

I wonder if the reason is physics.

Maybe cameras are incapable of capturing something so dazzling as the idea of an athlete who was as magnificent a player as he was a person.

The man who died last on one famous list lives first forever on so many, many more.

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