Drooling on the Pillow

Saturday, March 19, 2005

My Hero 

Posted by Hello

I'm still thinking about Mr. Snitch's baseball essay and the hideous hearings in Washington.

It was 1956 or 1957 when my father took me to my first major league game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. I had a couple of years of Little League under my belt, and I thought I was going to be pretty good. I had a good skill set for a ball player and up to that point was the best kid on every team I played on. I had one weakness and I was vaguely aware of it, but so far it hadn't hurt me.

Forbes Field was an old barn and when I saw it had been around for almost 60 years. The dimensions were: left field, 365, center 457, right field 300. 457 feet is an awful deep center field and they used to park the batting cage out there. No one ever hit a ball out of the park over the batting cage. And in 60 years nobody ever pitched a no hitter there.

I don't remember much from that game -- only one moment stood out. I think the other team was the Cubs, but I'm not sure about that. They had a guy on second. The batter hit a line drive that hit the base of the wall in right. The right fielder gathered the ball a few feet from the wall and threw a beebee, a laser (which didn't exist at the time), a screaming bullet on the fly that landed on the third base edge of home plate and got the runner from second. From an entire football field away.

I was electrified. I remember that moment like it was this morning. Maybe it was because it was my first brush with proportion, with the finality of limits. My weakness was my arm. It was average at best and as thrilling as Clemente's peg was I knew that was something I could never do. I wasn't going to be a major leaguer and, believe it or not, that came as a shock to me. I think I can honestly say, though, that I was less disappointed than thrilled. And from that moment on, Roberto Clemente was my hero.

Every team I was ever on I fought to have the number 21. Every game of backyard wiffle ball I copied the stance, the swing, the frantic dash around the bases. I admired his pride, his prickliness, his dignity. We moved from Pittsburgh to New Jersey on October 14, 1960, the day after the Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series on Mazeroski's home run.

You probably know that Clemente died on New Years Eve, 1972 in an airplane crash while attempting to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He bought the supplies, he rented the plane, he went with it to make sure it got where it was supposed to go.

The next few days I got calls from people all over the country, people I hadn't spoken to in ten years, because they knew how I felt about him.

Gracie plays in the Roberto Clemente league now and I always ask for number 21, but it's an Hispanic league in our town and somebody always gets it first.

You know, all I'm really asking of the bozos in Washington is for one of these millionaires to say "I took the juice and I'm sorry." They don't have to be heros.
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