Remembering Roberto Clemente

On June 2, 2016, in MLB, by Stephen

It was supposed to be Roberto Clemente Day throughout Major League Baseball this past Tuesday. The timing of that was to coincide with the Pirates-Marlins series being played in Puerto Rico, home of the late Pirates right fielder.

But Clemente Day will be celebrated in September since the series was relocated to Miami because of fears about the Zika virus.

Sometimes I’m asked how great of a player Clemente was since I had the privilege of being able to watch him numerous times while growing up in the 1960s.

Clemente was overshadowed by Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and even Frank Robinson. There’s a reason for that. Those four were all better due to their great power. But Clemente was better than Al Kaline, Carl Yastrzemski, Pete Rose, Lou Brock, Reggie Jackson and any outfielder playing today. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are the only two who can even compare to Clemente right now for their natural ability and all-around talent.

Clemente did everything well. He was great defensively with the strongest and most accurate arm I’ve ever seen in a right fielder. Few would ever challenge him. He used to dare runners to take an extra base by hiding his head after making a basket catch, or intentionally slowing his motion. But everybody knew it was the height of being boneheadedness to take on Clemente’s arm.

He was an aggressive base runner, although not a big base stealer. It was impossible to pitch to Clemente because he was a bad ball hitter. If you jammed him he’d hit a liner down third and if you pitched him outside he’d lunge and poke a single to right.

Back when Clemente was playing, nobody heard about the metric WAR (wins above replacement). If applied now, Clemente would have the 26th-highest WAR ranking of all-time at 94.4. By comparison, Joe DiMaggio’s WAR figure is 78.1.

Clemente died a hero at 38 in a plane crash while delivering humanitarian aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on the last day of 1972. That has elevated him to myth-like proportions. However, he wasn’t so popular until late in his career. That wasn’t entirely Clemente’s fault. The extremely prideful Clemente often was misunderstood. It was much tougher for Latin American ballplayers back in the 60s. Clemente had an unfair reputation among some for being a malinger.

The National League won 19 of 20 All-Star Games from 1963-1982. A big key to that dominance was having Mays, Aaron, Robinson and Clemente as outfielders. Having those outfielders the National League could have won even if their infield were composed of Danny Espinosa, Freddy Galvis and Erick Aybar with Alfredo Simon pitching.


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