Tuesday, October 7, 2003
Updated: October 10, 5:41 PM ET
Puerto Rico's Hero
By Nick Acocella
Special to ESPN.com
Sept. 30, 1972 - Roberto Clemente came to the ballpark in Pittsburgh after a sleepless night because of all the telephone calls from New York and Puerto Rico following his near-miss in getting his 3,000th hit the night before. Clemente, who had complained bitterly when he felt the official scorer deprived him of his historic hit, finally achieved his cherished goal when he stroked a long double to left-center off Mets lefthander Jon Matlack in the fourth inning.
The Pirate rightfielder became the 11th major leaguer to reach 3,000 hits.
"I'd rather have it this way," Clemente said after the 5-0 victory, somewhat repentant for his outburst of the previous night.
Nobody knew it at the time, but this was Clemente's final regular-season at-bat. Three months later, on a flight from Puerto Rico loaded with relief supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua, Clemente died in a plane crash.
Odds 'n' Ends
Clemente often took five bats into the on-deck circle. His bats ranged up to 42 ounces, a huge piece of lumber for someone his size (5-foot-11, 175 pounds).
The secret of his ability to handle a large bat while standing far from the plate was his large and powerful hands.
His single most memorable characteristic while batting was that before a pitch he would rotate his head as if to get the kinks out of his neck.
Clemente didn't get along with the press, which interpreted his forthright complaints about even minor criticism as an attempt at intimidation.
He also had a reputation as something of a hypochondriac, although he did suffer from backaches, ankle ailments, stomach aches, a bout with malaria, insomnia, tonsillitis, bone chips in his right elbow, and a variety of pulled muscles and sore shoulders.
Clemente was obsessed by his health. He stopped teammate Dave Guisti from dousing him with champagne after his 1971 World Series MVP performance by saying he had a bad eye.
Asked once in spring training how he felt, he replied, "My bad shoulder feels good, but my good shoulder feels bad."
Clemente is the last major leaguer to get three consecutive triples in a nine-inning game, accomplishing the feat on Sept. 8, 1958.
Arguably his best catch took place in Forbes Field in 1960 when he crashed into the concrete wall, cutting a gash in his chin, but held onto a Willie Mays line drive.
When Willie Stargell, who hit 48 homers in 1971, came down with a bad knee for the World Series, Clemente told him, "You got us here, and I'll win it." All season long he had been telling teammates, "Just get me to the World Series and I will win it for us."
Bill Virdon, a former teammate who managed Clemente in his final season, has pointed out how well he aged and called him "the greatest 38-year-old player that ever played the game."
Clemente practiced throwing by putting a garbage can, open end facing him, at third base, and taking repeated hits in right and throwing the ball on one hop into the can.
In his 18 seasons he threw out 269 runners, occasionally bobbling the ball intentionally to lure runners into trying to take an extra base.
In 1984, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp with Clemente's picture to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his birth.
In 1987, a musical based on his life was performed in San Juan.
Clemente's three sons were all born in Puerto Rico. He insisted that he and his wife Vera fly there for the births, because he wanted his sons born where he was born.
His cherished Sports City complex in Puerto Rico struggled for several years after his death - until Vera took over management of the project.
Roberto Clemente Raiders, a baseball school run out of Sports City, has graduated such major league players as Benito Santiago, Ruben Sierra, Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Baerga, Ivan Rodriguez, Sandy Alomar and Roberto Alomar.