Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Clemente by, David Maraniss

Baseball players are quite often defined by their stats and their achievements.  From this angle, Roberto Clemente lines up as one of the greatest all time.  Clemente finished his career with a .317 batting average, exactly 3000 hits, 240 home runs, and 1305 RBI.  During his 18-year career, he was a 15 time all-star, won the World Series twice, was the regular season MVP in 1966, World Series MVP in 1971, and was a Gold Glover for twelve straight seasons from 1961-1972.  Clemente recorded at least one hit in all 14 World Series games he played.

Outside of sheer numbers, Clemente exemplified what everyone holds dear about the sport of baseball.  He was able to track down balls in right field that nobody else could.  He could throw out runners at third from the deepest part of the park - without bouncing the ball.  He wasn't the most graceful or fastest runner, but those who saw him on the basepaths said that he ran like he was being chased by someone or something.

As a human being, Clemente is remembered as someone special, too.  He was beloved by fans; quick to make friends.  He had a strong sense of pride and felt that "any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on Earth."  Nothing shows this better than his untimely death at age 38 in a plane crash while delivering supplies to victims of the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake.

But, like most men (and especially athletes), Clemente was no saint.  His interactions with the sportswriters of his day were touchy at best.  He thought they didn't respect him.  They would often write his quotes in phonetic English, attempting to paint him as stupid.  He was quick to anger at those he felt slighted him.

David Maraniss's book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero , chronicles Clemente's life, showing that Clemente was a great man, but doesn't gloss over his faults.  Maraniss talks about Clemente's early life in Puerto Rico, his struggles against Jim Crow during spring training, and how his pride and anger drove him to greater and greater heights.

Maraniss certainly did quite a bit of research.  There are extensive quotes from Clemente's friends, family, former teammates, and former managers.  The chapters on the World Series games (1960 and 1971) are some of the best in the book.  Like Clemente, the book isn't without its flaws.  In just about every chapter, there's mention of Clemente's prickly relationship with the press and the casual racism he faced not only as a Latin player, but as a black Latin player.  Sometimes, Maraniss drops you right in and mentions Clemente's teammates without giving them a proper introduction (even as a Pirates fan, I'm not that familiar with the teams of the 1950's and 1960's, so it took me a second or two to place the players).

There are eerie moments in the book where it appears that Clemente (and some others around him) had premonitions of his death in a plane crash.  Roberto himself mentioned on several occasions that he felt he was going to die young.  These add to the sense that he led a charmed life.

I'd recommend this book to baseball fans everywhere.  I've heard some rumors that Hollywood is planning a movie about Clemente's life. I'd certainly go see it.

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