Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Spirit of Baseball Past

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero

Sometimes the holiday season brings the most unusual gifts...

I want to start off this blog with a few reflections about watching a baseball game... a game that was played years before I was born, of which a copy was made at the time and then forgotten for decades, only to be found and aired some five decades later, in a whole new era...

In mid-December, I was lucky enough to catch Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, which was aired for the first time since the game was originally played, a little more than 50 years ago.

The very fact that a copy of the game was found after so many years is remarkable, and the story of how it came to be preserved, forgotten, and then rediscovered last summer in Bing Crosby’s personal film collection is a wonderful tale in and of itself.

But the joy of actually seeing the entire see-saw battle for the championship between the Yankees and the Pirates -- and watching players like Roberto Clemente, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle playing in a complete game, as opposed to glimpsing brief highlights, was a truly thrilling experience.

Although many of the great Yankees who played in that era were retired or at the end of their career when I was growing up, I have intensely visceral memories of the great Roberto Clemente. At the latter part of his career he was still a formidable nemesis for the early 1970s Mets, who I adored as a child; but his sheer grace and skill taught me an early lesson about admiring people and their talents regardless of their uniform. As a result, although I’ve remained a Mets fan all my life, I can also honestly say that I am a fan of all baseball as well, and of great effort, great skill, and great spirit in all sports.

And of course, the tragic death of Roberto Clemente on New Year’s Eve 1972, while he was engaged in a relief mission for Nicaraguan earthquake victims, taught me many other things, too -- particularly about the true nature of heroism.

Seeing him play in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, though, brought this larger-than-life figure from my childhood somehow closer, as I realized anew the fact that he was a consummate athlete who overcame the circumstances of his time to play the game he loved, every summer day, for many years...

As I watched the game, he was again Roberto Clemente the ballplayer, as well as the tragic hero, the historic icon, and the man whose great play against my hometown favorite team challenged me to applaud greatness wherever I might be lucky enough to find it.

What a wonderful gift: a game, a man, a baseball legend, and the little boy within me, thrilled as much as I was on every long-ago childhood Christmas Eve...

© 2010 Patrick J. Walsh

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