|Thursday, September 26
Updated: September 30, 3:28 PM ET
Clemente carried himself with dignity
By Joe Morgan
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's Note: Monday will mark the 30th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit and final regular-season game before his tragic death on Dec. 31, 1972.
Over and over again, I have said Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player I ever saw. But Mays always says Roberto Clemente was the greatest player he ever played against. And other players have agreed with his opinion.
When I talked to Clemente, I got excited, as I did talking to all the great players. He used to call me "Joey." While our conversations focused on baseball, something was always bothering him, whether it was his back or his ankle or something else. But that was when Clemente was at his best on the field.
His 3,000th hit almost never happened. Clemente wasn't going to play the final regular-season game; he wanted to wait and get his 3,000th hit at the beginning of the 1973 season. But the Pirates talked him into playing because they felt the fans deserved it.
Although he got his 3,000th hit against the Mets, I played against Clemente in his final major-league game because the Reds faced his Pirates in the 1972 National League Championship Series. At Three Rivers Stadium, I hit a ball that he leaped for and tried to catch at the right-field fence. But the ball hit the top of the wall and bounced over for a home run. I remember being shocked because I thought Clemente was going to catch it.
Clemente's defense stood out more than any part of his game. He had such a strong arm and made some unbelievable throws. I remember how he threw the ball back to the infield after he made a catch. He would fire it underhand. At the same time, he could also run down a ball as well as any outfielder and would use the basket catch like Mays did.
As a hitter, even though Clemente won four batting titles, people rated him below Mays, Aaron and others because he didn't hit for power. Hearing the criticism, Clemente went out and hit 29 home runs in 1966 and won the NL Most Valuable Player award. Two years later, he was back to hitting less than 20 a season. Clemente had made a statement; he could hit for power if he wanted to, but that wasn't the way he played the game. Instead, Clemente would drive the ball to right field like a left-handed hitter would.
Clemente was 38 when he died tragically, but he still had a lot of game left. Although he could no longer play everyday, he still won a 12th straight Gold Glove award and hit .312 his final season.
It was only proper for baseball to name an annual humanitarian award after Clemente -- The Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award. He died trying to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua and meant everything to Puerto Rico. I have been to Puerto Rico and have seen his impact on the people.
His wife, Vera, once told me a story about how she met Roberto. She was sort of a debutante, coming from an upper-class family. And when Roberto met her, he went home and told his mom he had just met the lady he would marry.
Vera idolized him and her son, Roberto Clemente Jr., told me she never remarried after his death. That tells you the type of man Roberto was.
A fitting, festive farewell to Riverfront
Monday gave me an opportunity to be with my former teammates and celebrate the closing of the ballpark. It was an electric evening. You would have thought we were playing the second game of the World Series. The fans were unbelievable -- and it was just a softball game.
The Reds fans have always been great to me. Whenever I go to Cincinnati for an ESPN broadcast, the Reds show highlights of me on the scoreboard, they play the Bette Midler song, "Wind Beneath My Wings," and the fans give me a standing ovation in the broadcast booth.
Monday's celebration was similar to the last time my teammates and I got together for the 25th anniversary of our 1975 championship team. Everyone attended except Pete Rose and Pedro Borbon. Whenever a team wins a championship, the players develop a permanent bond, no matter where their lives take them. That is how I feel about my teammates.
Things become more difficult when Pete is involved. For instance, he was prohibited from attending Sunday's game. But Monday was a great way for the fans who idolized Pete to come see him one last time at Riverfront.
When Pete was introduced, he received a huge ovation, but that wasn't a surprise. Cincinnati is Pete's town, the city where he grew up. The city named a street after him; Pete Rose Way runs next to the ballpark. All the players got a great reception, but Pete is the hometown hero.
Before the softball game, he promised he wouldn't do a head-first slide. But when I was on first base and he was on second, there was a flyball to center. As the ball was being returned to the infield, Pete took off for third and dove in. I looked around just in time to see it, because I was headed back to first base.
Someone asked me if I had a fondest memory at Riverfront Stadium, but I can't choose one. I saw Pete's 3,000th hit. I saw Johnny Bench hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to tie Game 5 of the NLCS and help us reach the World Series in 1972. I saw Tony Perez hit a ball into the red seats. I got the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 3 of the 1975 World Series.
I played with so many great players who did special things. And Monday served as a fitting tribute to all of them.
Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan is the baseball analyst on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball and contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.