TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME

Today…..Opening Day for the Pittsburgh Pirates at home at PNC Park.

I won’t be there, but, surprisingly, neither will my oldest son, who has been attending Opening Day for years. But Mandalay Bay awaits him and several friends when they arrive in Las Vegas shortly.

But I’ll be watching the contest on TV and rooting for my beloved Buccos.

They are off to a promising start, but, alas, I’ve seen too many similar promises broken these past eighteen seasons.

Yes, people will come to PNC, sold out today, to cheer for a team without a winning record since 1992. Here’s one reason why people will come.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU3a1PDtTYk

I have been a Pirates fan since the 1950’s and saw my first game in person on a cold May Saturday in 1957 at Forbes Field. I was on an excursion of Cub Scouts and my dad was along as one of our chaperones.

Fortuitously our seats were in right field so I could be as close to my favorite player as possible. That was one Roberto Walker Clemente. Though he was not yet the star he would become he possessed this transcendent quality that drew you to him like iron filings to a magnet.

As he blossomed over the next few years he made All-Star teams and won batting titles and a Most Valuable Player Award. Then, as others have noted through the years, his ascendency on the national stage reached its pinnacle in the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles in which he led the Pirates to victory.

But in those days prior to ESPN and the televising of almost every game, he was somewhat unknown out of Pittsburgh or inner baseball circles.

His story is well-known about his humanitarian work that finally led to his tragic death on New Year’s Eve of 1972.

Few pass from extraordinary human being into certifiable legend so quickly. And yes so deservedly. Almost forty years later that legend has attained almost mythical proportion.

I tend to recoil from overpraising any celebrity, from the sports world or otherwise, for their off-the-field endeavors. Of course today there are not many people, celebrities or not, who can stand up under the intense scrutiny permissible via the internet. Any minor flaw can be magnified beyond all reason.

But somehow I think Roberto, if still living, would have been able to escape that taint. I may be unrealistic, but even before his demise Roberto Clemente was the only athlete who I have ever idolized to any extent.

Though he physically is not present, Clemente maintains an aura over PNC Park that is inescapable. You have a beautiful ball park with real grass that is reminiscent of where I first saw him demonstrate his talents.

Moreover, the Clemente Wall in right field is a standing monument that even little children are made aware of. Named for him and honoring his uniform number, the wall is 21 feet high. That area of the park yields more home runs than any other part and inevitably the home run call by the announcers for one hit over the wall will include a reference to its name.

Quite simply, Roberto Clemente was the most beautiful baseball player I have ever seen in any venue through any medium. All grace and poise off the field, he was energy uncoiled on it and played with a ferocity that was distinctly personal to him.

But to me the consumate portrait of him was of him standing on second base after garnering his 3000th hit at Three Rivers Stadium. Standing with his arms akimbo he looks at once both proud and defiant. Proud because he set high standards for his own play and was pretty successful at meeting them. Defiant because along his major league journey he had many doubters and naysayers who could now and forever after be ignored.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzR5RvttxJ0

I warn you, better have a box of tissues handy before you watch that video.

But even without the Major Leagues I have a more personal connection to the game. Like most little boys growing up in my era my dad was also a baseball fan. My own father was quite a good amateur baseball player who once pitched a perfect game in the equivalent of what is now American Legion ball.

One reason I easily recall this fact is Dad, in his own way, was just as proud of his achievement as Roberto was of his. He had kept the clippings from the newspaper story about his feat. Probably at least once a year he would ask if he had ever told me about his perfect game. My answer didn’t matter since he’s haul out the clippings no matter what.

More importantly to me, when Dad arrived home from work and after he’s had a chance to read the paper and we had eaten supper, I’d ask him to throw catch with me. Rarely did he turn me down. So we’d go out into the yard or even often trek half a block to the nearest playground and have a catch.

Many evenings some of my neighborhood friends would appear and Dad would be pressed into either hitting fungoes to us or pitching to each of us in turn, tossing the ball in a way guaranteed to let us be able to pretend we were actually good hitters.

If you’re familiar with the movie “Field of Dreams” you know its basic premise is that Ray, an Iowa farmer, while in the middle of his cornfield, hears a voice whispering “If you build it he will come”. He concludes he is to rip out some of his corn and build a ballfield and Shoeless Joe Jackson and other long-dead former Big Leaguers will magically appear.

In the climactic scene Ray and we learn that ‘He” did not refer to Shoeless Joe but to Ray’s own father from whom he was estranged before the dad died. The camera draws away from the field as a string of cars is shown arriving to see the magical field, and Ray is having a catch with his own father for the first time in years.

Yes, I strongly identify with that scenario. I may watch along as you view a video of that.

http://www.hulu.com/watch/12473/field-of-dreams-ray-and-his-dad-play-catch

Have any tissues left? 

PLAY BALL!

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