Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates are experiencing emotions they haven’t felt at least in a generation, maybe ever. Oh, they’ve felt revulsion over post-All Star Game slides these last few years. Older fans are even old enough to recall when Barry Bonds, pre-PED, helped keep them competitive into October.
Before this season, fans would have celebrated the team’s first winning record and playoff appearance since 1992. But at this point, why be excited about a wild-card berth when so much more was potentially within their grasp—first place in the Central Division?
As the Pirate faithful look to the playoffs, many have undoubtedly taken to imploring otherworldly powers. And who better for this than their homegrown version of a saint?
I have already written about the Pirates’ statues of Honus Wagner and Willie Stargell. But as superb as their diamond accomplishments were, and as substantial as their clubhouse contributions, they pale next to Roberto Clemente.
The Hall of Fame right fielder did more than just get many timely home runs and throw runners out with his howitzer arm. As the major leagues’ first Latino superstar, he set an example of fierce pride and intensity that subsequent generations would follow. And he transcended the game when he died on a humanitarian plane flight to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua in 1972.
Clemente has come to resonate as something like a saint for so many people because he embodied the values of loyalty and self-sacrifice. The contrast with contemporary athletes is marked, starting with Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, as much as any contemporary player, is a brand—a fact that reaches its nadir in the recent New York Times story that notes that the team of ambulance chasers, flacks and shameless shamuses trying to overturn his unprecedentedly long suspension is named ARod Corp.
In one sense, even though I’m a Yankee fan, I’m fine with the thought that they didn’t make the playoffs (even with two wild cards) this year. That appearance would have been tainted by the idea that the Bombers benefited from, as John Sterling poetically puts it, “an A-bomb from A-Rod.”
At this point, the idea of a plaque to A-Rod (or to Roger Clemens, who notched his 300th victory with the Yankees) is obscene. (If it ever came to pass, a syringe sticking out of their hides would be appropriate.)
Such is not the case with Clemente. In an era when idols are torn down, his name not only remains unsullied, but has grown in stature, as more and more people realize the toll on his body by nagging injuries and the toll on his spirit by an uncomprehending, at times prejudiced, press corps. The Pirates’ statue in his honor was transported from Three Rivers Stadium to its new home, outside PNC Park, like a holy relic.
The bronze sculpture, by local artist Susan Wagner, now stands behind center field in the Pirates’ latest home. Fans will see this piece of art as they drive to the stadium over a bridge named after the great hitter.