Monday, December 31, 2012

What If Roberto Clemente Had Lived?

December 31, 1972, 40 years ago today: On a DC-7 plane overloaded with relief supplies from his hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico to earthquake-stricken Managua, Nicaragua, Roberto Clemente and his   pilot perished in a crash into the Caribbean Sea.

Clemente was 38 years old.  He was coming off a season in which he had batted .312, with an OPS+ of 138, and had collected his 3,000th career hit -- which was also his 440th double, and included 166 triples and 240 home runs, which doesn't seem like a lot for a player so often cited as an all-time great, but from 1955 to mid-1970 he played his home games at Forbes Field, whose dimensions were practically identical to the pre-renovation original Yankee Stadium, and thus heavily biased against a righthanded hitter like him.  His lifetime batting average was .317, OPS+130.  He won 4 batting titles, Gold Gloves in each of the last 12 seasons, and was named to 12 All-Star teams -- all but one (1968) between 1960 and 1972.

Hank Aaron was also 38 that year, and was also a legitimate All-Star, and would also be one at ages 39 and 40.  Willie Mays was 3 years older, but had also been an All-Star and deservedly so at ages 38, 39 and 40.

It's also important to note that Clemente played in 14 World Series games -- 7 each in 1960 and 1971 -- and got a hit in every one of them.  He had 2 World Series rings.  And in each of his last 3 seasons, he had helped the Pittsburgh Pirates win the National League Eastern Division.

At the time, the Pirates were a really good team, not yet known as "The Family," but already known for their booming bats as "The Lumber Company." In addition to Clemente, they had Willie Stargell, who would go on to hit 475 home runs; Al Oliver, who finished his career with a .303 average and 2,743 hits including 529 doubles; Manny Sanguillen, who batted at least .319 3 times; Richie Hebner, who batted .300 twice; Dave Cash, a good leadoff hitter who twice got over 200 hits in a season (albeit with the Philadelphia Phillies, after leaving the Red Sox); Gene Clines, who twice batted .300 as a reserve outfielder for the Pirates and nearly did it again for the Chicago Cubs; and Rennie Stennett, would would go on to bat .336 in 1977.

Don Sutton of the Los Angeles Dodgers, already into a Hall of Fame pitching career, said, "Some teams watch a pitcher and say, 'Oh boy, here comes a fastball.' Others say, 'Oh boy, here comes a curveball.' The Pirates say, 'Oh boy, here comes a baseball.'" Translation: They didn't care what you threw, they were going to hit it.

In 1973, in a special election, waiving the mandatory 5-year waiting period (not that it mattered in his case), Clemente was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The Pirates retired his Number 21.  They wore a black patch with his number on their left sleeves.  And they converted Richie Zisk, a power-hitting young left fielder, into their right fielder, before calling up Dave Parker, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound bruiser known as the Cobra, and moving Zisk over to left field and Stargell to 1st base.

How would the history of baseball, and the Pirates in particular, have been different if Clemente had lived?


Apparently, there was a storm when the plane took off.  Both the plane and the pilot had issues.  Roberto decided to try again the next day, New Year's Day, January 1, 1973.

The plane landed in Managua without incident, and the relief supplies, due to Clemente's fame, did not get sidetracked by fascist dictator Anastasio Somoza.

In RL, there was a 5-way Pennant race in the National League East, one which no one seemed to want to win.  The Phillies were the only team in the Division that was out of it, finishing 11 1/2 games back.  The Cubs ended up 5 back -- closer than they were in their (in)famous 1969 season --  but were in 5th place.  The Montreal Expos got into their first Pennant race, and ended up 3 1/2 back.  The Pirates, victimized by a freak play against the Mets at Shea Stadium on September 20, finished 2 1/2 back.  And the St. Louis Cardinals, in their closest call between 1968 and 1982, finished 1 1/2 back.

The Mets clinched the NL East by winning the first game of a doubleheader with the Cubs at Wrigley Field, forced by rainouts to play one day after the regular season was supposed to have ended, and the second game was rained out and never rescheduled.  The Mets won the Division with an 82-79 record, the worst record of any 1st-place finisher in a Major League Baseball season that reached a conclusion.  (The Texas Rangers had a losing record but were leading the American League West when the Strike of '94 hit.)

Can we honestly say that a living Clemente, who would have turned 39 on August 18, 1973, would have made a difference? Bob Robertson, the Pirates' 1st baseman, batted just .239.  Maybe Stargell would have been moved to 1st then, and Zisk put in left, with Clemente still in right.  After all, he still had a great arm, and, in spite of injuries that unfairly got him the label of a hypochondriac, he hadn't slowed down much.  It's not hard to imagine him making juuuust that much more of a contribution to the lineup than Robertson, and the Pirates making up 3 games to win the Division.

Since the Mets beat the NL Western Division Champion Cincinnati Reds to win the Pennant, would the Pirates have done so? Maybe not: The Reds had already beaten them in the 1970 and '72 NLCS.  (When the Pirates went all the way in '71, it was the San Francisco Giants they beat in the NLCS.)

What about 1974? The Pirates won the Division again, beating the Cards by a game and a half.  But they lost the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3 games to 1.  Would a 40-year-old Clemente have made a differences? Maybe: Mays and Aaron were both still good hitters at 40.  But, overall, the Pirates batted just .194 in that series.

Even if the Pirates had won both Pennants, I don't see them beating the Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers Oakland Athletics in either the 1973 or the 1974 World Series.  And by 1975, when the Pirates got swept in the NLCS by the Reds, Clemente would have been 41.  So I'm thinking they win one more Pennant, that of 1973, and not another World Series.  That gives the Pirates 10 Pennants in their TTL-history, instead of their RL 9.

Statistically, Roberto could well have added 160 hits in '73, 140 in '74, and 80 in a '75 finale.  That would have given him 3,380 hits -- more than anybody to that point except Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker, Cap Anson, Honus Wagner, and his contemporary Hank Aaron, and more than anybody since except Pete Rose.  If he could play in '76, at age 42, and somehow add another 56, that would give him 3,436 to surpass Wagner and Aaron, and leave him 5th (now 6th) all-time.  Not that it made any difference in whether he got into the Hall of Fame or got his number retired, but it might have gotten him over the line in the balloting for the MLB All-Century Team in 1999, even without the shadow of early death.


What would Clemente have done with the rest of his life? I can see him a baseball, or a Latino, equivalent of tennis star Arthur Ashe, who, in the decade of Clemente's death, agitated for civil rights, including in apartheid-ridden South Africa.

Clemente would have seen the dangers of Communism, how it surpress freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to vote.  But he would also have seen the dangers of fascist dictators like Somoza, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, and the Argentine junta, which used religion and nationalism as excuses for the same kind of surpression.

Clemente could have done what Jackie Robinson could never quite do: Rally his people to what should have been their own cause, and other peoples to that cause, the cause of uplifting Hispanic Americans and the people of the Spanish-speaking world.  He could have conducted baseball clinics all over the Caribbean, including Mexico, Central America, South America, even the Philippines, once part of the Spanish Empire.  (Though I doubt that even his personality and charisma could have led British Commonwealth nations of the Caribbean, such as Jamaica and Barbados, away from their loves of soccer and cricket.)

I can also see him doing something that really would shape the future of baseball.  In the mid-1980s, the team that had won the 1979 World Series was gone, the "Pittsburgh Drug Trials" stained the team's image, wins were hard to come by, attendance dropped, and there was a genuine threat that the Pirates might move.  At this time, Washington had Robert F. Kennedy Stadium waiting for a team, Denver had Mile High Stadium, and Miami was building Joe Robbie Stadium.  Despite the fact that the Pirates were approaching their 100th Anniversary in 1987, it was entirely possible that they would begin the 1988 season elsewhere.

Mayor Richard Caliguiri, talked several Western Pennsylvania-based companies into banding together to form Pittsburgh Associates, and this group bought the Pirates in 1985.  These companies included U.S. Steel, PNC Financial, Mellon Financial and Westinghouse.  Had Clemente still been alive (he would have been 51), Caliguiri could well have made the task easier by asking Roberto to get involved.  Suppose that these companies had said they would do it on the condition that Roberto be involved with the Pirate organization again? So they buy the Pirates.  Clemente becomes what some sports teams call a club "ambassador."

He goes to the State legislature in Harrisburg, and convinces them to pony up the money to build a better ballpark.  It takes a while to get the plans approved, but that's okay, since it gives the Pittsburgh people a chance to see what Baltimore did with Camden Yards, and they adjust accordingly What we know as PNC Park opens not in 2001, but in 1996.  Does that make a difference? Maybe not competitively, but it gets them out of Three Rivers Stadium 5 years sooner, which the fans would have liked.  Let's face it: Three Rivers was a football stadium, not a ballpark.

Now, imagine that, all this time, Clemente has been there, to keep people involved with the Pirates.  Let's suppose that a rich man (and Pittsburgh, for all its struggles, has always had plenty of them) buys the team from Pittsburgh Associates after the 1990 NL East title.  The Bucs win 3 straight Division titles, but can't quite get past the Reds in the 1990 NLCS, or the Atlanta Braves in 1991 or '92.

Except this as-yet-hypothetical new owner does what Pittsburgh Associates was not willing to do in the RL-1992-93 off-season: Spend the money necessary to keep Barry Bonds in town.  But Clemente also talks the owner into going after the biggest free-agent pitcher: Greg Maddux.  Instead of dropping from 96-66 to 75-87 as in RL, in 1993 the Pirates make a good run before falling behind the Phillies.  In 1994, the 3-Division setup comes in, and the Pirates move to the NL Central.  That's the strike year.  In 1995, Bonds and Maddux help the Pirates win the Division, beat the Dodgers and the Braves in the Playoffs, and, in the first-ever instance of the Pittsburgh-Cleveland football rivalry ever carrying over into baseball (something that has still never happened in RL), beat the Indians in the World Series.

That inspires the Steelers, and, with the memory of what the Pirates did in their minds, instead of losing Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys, they win.  As in 1979-80, Pittsburgh in 1995-96 is "The City of Champions."

The Pirates take the Braves' place for TTL-1996 as well, winning another Pennant, before getting shocked by the Yankees in the World Series, thus revenge for 1960 is finally attained.  Bonds keeps hitting.  The Bucs win another Pennant in 1997, and again they beat the Indians in the World Series.

In 1998, the Houston Astros are too good for the Pirates, and win the NL Central.  Bonds sees the love that is poured on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they hit 70 and 66 home runs respectively, and Ken Griffey Jr. as he hits 58.  He suspects they are using performance-enhancing drugs.  With his father, Bobby Bonds, still coaching in San Francisco and thus far away, and a pair of genuine Hall-of-Famers on hand, he asks Clemente, now 64 years old, what he should do.  "Don't worry about what other people say about other people," The Great One tells Barry.  "Just do what you know you can do.  You've won two World Series.  McGwire has only one, and Sosa doesn't have any." Stargell reminds Bonds of something he'd frequently said, "Don't be sharp, don't be flat.  Just be natural." Bonds takes this to mean, "Don't take steroids." He doesn't.

But the Pirates, even with Bonds and Maddux, struggle.  The as-yet-unknown owner sells the team to Pittsburgh native Mark Cuban, who already owns the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, and has not yet shown himself to be too much of, well, a maverick to make MLB Commissioner Bud Selig put the kibosh on the deal.  Cuban does the unthinkable, and signs Alex Rodriguez to a contract with $252 million.

In 2001, with Stargell having died at the start of the season, Bonds hits 55 home runs, A-Rod hits 52, and Maddux goes 20-8.  They go on to beat the Yankees in an epic World Series, including coming from 2-1 down against Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7.  It is their 4th Pennant and 3rd World Championship in 7 seasons.

The Pirates, led by A-Rod and Bonds finishing 1 and 2 in the NL's Most Valuable Player voting, shock the Cubs thanks to Steve Bartman and the Cubs' own shoddy defense to win the 2003 Pennant.  But this time, the Yankees win the Series.  Still, that's 5 Pennants and 3 World Championships in 9 years.  Pretty strong.

In 2006, the Pirates and the Mets are tied 1-1 in the top of the 9th of Game 7 of the NLCS at Shea.  But Ronny Paulino -- a .310 hitter but with only 6 home runs -- hits a stunning home run.  (This is the Yadier Molina homer in RL.) Rookie reliever Matt Capps fans Carlos Beltran, who never takes the bat off his shoulder, for the Pennant-clinching out.  And the Bucs take the World Series, beating the Detroit Tigers, as in 1909.  12 years, 6 Pennants, 4 World Series won.  And, oh yeah, this is the 3rd calendar year in which both the Pirates and the Steelers have won their sports' World Championships.

The Pirates win the NL Central again in 2007, but things are beginning to change.  Bonds retires at the end of the season, having hit 617 home runs.  (The Pirates retire his Number 24, and he is elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2013.) Maddux also retires (and the Pirates pack away his Number 31).  And A-Rod is getting restless, with his 1-for-13 performance in an NL Division Series sweep by the Arizona Diamondbacks having the Pitt fans turn on him, despite the fact that he was closing in on becoming the youngest player ever to join the 500 Home Run Club.  (Remember, in TTL, he has also followed Clemente's advice, and never taken steroids.)

Clemente has also retired from his active position with the Pirates, and has spoken out against steroids, especially against their use by Hispanic players.  Sosa, a Dominican who wears Number 21 in tribute to Clemente, feels betrayed, but is released by the Texas Rangers and never plays in the majors again.  A new testing system is put in place starting with the 2008 season.

Although the Pirates have not reached the Playoffs since 2007, their record is a superb one: 20 Division titles, 16 National League Pennants, 9 World Championships -- only 1 fewer than the Steelers and Penguins combined.  (In RL, the Steelers have won 6, the Pirates 5, the Penguins 3.)

If Roberto Clemente died today, December 31, 2012, at 78 having had 40 additional years of life, he could have taken the immenseness of what he had done in the first half of his life, and made the second half even greater.

It is a pity that we shall never know.