Mark Madden: Roberto Clemente was great but not nearly greatest
Roberto Clemente would have turned 85 this past Sunday.
If he’s not the best player in Pirates history, he’s definitely the most revered and rightly so.
Clemente oozed class and poise, conducting himself in forthright fashion. His plane crashed while on a mission of charity, further sanctifying him in the eyes of Pittsburgh and Latinos everywhere that he continues to inspire.
Declaring Clemente the No. 1 Pirate ever isn’t unreasonable.
Barry Bonds is the only Pirate to win two MVPs, but he ditched Pittsburgh after behaving in a manner in direct opposition to Clemente’s style and demeanor. (Free agency’s big money surely would have lured Clemente elsewhere if he’d had the chance.)
Honus Wagner was born in Carnegie. He may be the greatest shortstop ever. But no one who saw Wagner play is still alive. If there’s any appreciable video, it’s not easily found. Beyond his stats, Wagner is a myth. A statue.
If you want to proclaim Clemente the Pirates’ GOAT, that’s OK.
He’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame and was an easy choice.
But retiring Clemente’s No. 21 throughout MLB would go too far. That’s been proposed because of Clemente’s impact on Latino baseball.
But the only player so honored is Jackie Robinson, who broke MLB’s color barrier in 1947.
For all the good Clemente did, it’s not comparable to that. Clemente didn’t endure what Robinson did. To retire anybody else’s number across all of baseball would diminish the honor accorded Robinson.
So don’t do it. Not with Clemente, or anybody else.
Clemente’s career is overrated a bit by Pittsburghers, especially the media who covered him.
Clemente is in a class with his era’s peers, like fellow outfielders Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. But they were better.
Most arguments on Clemente’s behalf begin with, “I saw him play, and…”
Well, I saw Clemente play, too. Visually and intangibly, he offered more than, say, Aaron. Consider Clemente’s grace, speed, glove and arm, and his track record in big situations. He hit .362 in two World Series, helped win both and was MVP in one (1971).
But Aaron hit 515 more home runs and his OPS is 94 points higher.
After being goaded on Twitter (it doesn’t take much), I rattled off a list of 10 nonpitchers who had better careers than Clemente: Aaron, Bonds, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Mays, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. That was off the top of my head. There are at least a dozen more who are in the “better than Clemente” conversation (including Wagner).
Clemente is a top-25 nonpitcher all-time. That’s as much as can be definitely said.
Don’t cite Clemente’s perceived handicap of playing most of his career in spacious Forbes Field. Sure, the park took away a few home runs. It also helped Clemente hit 440 doubles, 166 triples and added points to his batting average.
This is not remotely a criticism of Clemente. His accomplishments are amazing.
It’s a realistic, objective evaluation of where Clemente stands in baseball’s all-time hierarchy. Anything better is upgrading him because he’s a Pittsburgh icon.
Those who carry water for Clemente’s legend often break things down to a brief sample, like the ’71 World Series, or to even smaller microcosms, like this throw or that catch, plays that “nobody else could have made.”
But baseball is a game that puts aesthetics on the backburner in favor of grinding the numbers. Clemente was great, but not nearly the greatest.
Honor Clemente for the man he was. Remember Clemente for the player he was. But be realistic about where he ranks. In baseball, the stats don’t lie.