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Bill Larkin
Roberto Clemente, 1970

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Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 8:04 p.m.
 

Molly-O wept that New Year's Day 40 years ago.

Anytime our mother called early in the morning, it could only be bad news. This time, reports were breaking in Pittsburgh that Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash the day before.

As tough as her life had been — she fought through the poverty of the Depression, became a young widow in the wake of World War II and stoically lost too many friends and family — this loss broke her that day. At the other end of the phone line, her son cried, too.

Clemente had found his way into the hearts of many in this blue-collar town, opening minds, bridging gaps. He was an odd fit at first but the quirky Puerto Rican baseball player played through his aches and pains, much like those who answered the mill whistle every day in spite of their own ailments.

Nobody cared that he was a little hard to understand or that he complained about his health. Pirates fans knew that The Sporting News was on the money in 1957 when it reported, “The case history of Clemente is the worse he feels, the better he plays.”

If you were lucky enough to be a kid in one of the old industrial towns, once every year or so you and your pals were given free tickets and a bus ride to Forbes Field. These Knothole Gang seats were thought to be “the cheap seats,” out in right field, but no kid ever wanted to sit anywhere else.

Starting with the pre-game warm-up, it was all about the kids for Clemente, as he smiled and joked and tossed a few balls up to the crowd clamoring at the rail. He showed many of them for the first time that giving 100 percent, striving for excellence, was OK and that being different could be a virtue.

The shock of his death while flying aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims was eventually replaced by the realization that “The Great One” could not have passed any other way. Mention Clemente today and those who watched him live get suddenly quiet and smile.

Two decades after his death, men who had been boys when that plane went down found themselves in city government, trying to make a tough sale, the construction of a baseball-only park on the Allegheny River. They called the prototype Clemente Field.

Years later, when those politicians who first opposed the project could finally claim the idea as their own, the ballpark was built. By then, the temptation to sell the naming rights was too great and it became PNC Park, a clone of the original concept and a gem of a facility.

But because naming it Clemente Field was so right, something had to be done, and the Sixth Street Bridge was renamed for this childhood hero and citizen of a better world.

And maybe a bridge, while not enough, sends the right message.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).

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