MALIGNING MY MOTHER’S FAVORITE AND OTHER MATTERS

By Murray Chass

June 23, 2011

This is a catch-up column, addressing issues I have not been able to in recent days and weeks, and No. 1 on the list is really a catch-up because for some inexplicable reason I completely missed it.

I was not aware of the remarkably misguided article The New York Times ran about Roberto Clemente on June 12 until a week later when I read three letters to the sports editor about it.Roberto Clemente 225

When the Times receives multiple letters about a published piece, it will run letters representative of all sides of the issue. When I saw that all three letters expressed a similar view, I figured that the piece in question had to be highly questionable.

When I retrieved it from the Times archives and read it, I saw why the letter writers were critical of the piece. It depicted a situation that was 180 degrees from reality.

“Clemente’s 3,000th hit was muted milestone in ambivalent city,” the headline read, accurately reflecting the article.

“Strange story, strange headline,” said Sally O’Leary, a long-time member of the Pirates’ public relations department, who was working in the scoreboard room at Three Rivers Stadium the day Clemente got No. 3,000.

“I don’t think it’s right at all,” she said of Tyler Kepner’s characterization of the Pirates’ fans feeling about Clemente. Kepner, usually a reliable reporter, was not writing about Clemente from first-hand knowledge. Yet to be born at the time, he relied on his assumptions and the view, also not first hand, of David Maraniss, who wrote a biography of Clemente.

Kepner seems to base much of his judgment on the size of the crowd, 13,117, at the 3,000 game. But the Pirates averaged only 17,622 per game that season.

Kepner compares Clemente and Pirates fans with Derek Jeter and Yankees fans. When Jeter gets his 3,000th hit, Kepner writes, the “stands will be packed, the news media will be buzzing, and the players will all know what is happening.”

(The last comment about the players all knowing what’s happening refers to Jon Matlack, the Mets’ pitcher, not knowing that Clemente was going for 3,000, but that’s a reflection on Matlack’s ignorance, not on Clemente and the Pirates fans.)

With the hundreds of thousands of words that Kepner and his New York area colleagues have written in recent weeks about Jeter, of course everyone will know. Jeter hasn’t had a hit recently that wasn’t celebrated by the fawning writers.

Trying to demonstrate how Pirates fans didn’t care about Clemente, Kepner quotes Maraniss, the biographer, as saying Clemente was a victim of the racial views of the Pirates’ overwhelmingly white fans.

“’Pittsburgh was the quintessential white working-class steel town, and the Pirates were seen as ‘too black,’” the article quotes Maraniss as saying.

That was generally true but not as it applied to Clemente. White fans loved him at least as passionately as white Yankees fans adore the racially mixed Jeter. Unlike Kepner, I have first-hand knowledge of that fact.

Roberto Clemente 3000 HitI was raised by two of Clemente’s biggest fans. My mother, to put it mildly, was a fanatic Clemente fan. He was her all-time favorite. I don’t think she ever went to bed until Clemente had batted for the last time each night. And, of course, I was a huge Clemente fan until I began covering baseball professionally.

In a crazy coincidence of timing, I remember I was staying at my old house for a family function, and my mother woke me up New Year’s morning and with great sadness told me, “Bobby’s dead. His plane crashed.” She called him Bobby because that was the name Bob Prince, the Pirates’ play-by-play announcer, used affectionately.

When I saw the Times’ piece, I sent an e-mail to a friend whom I have known since junior high school and whose interest in baseball has matched mine. I asked him about his recollections of Clemente and the fans.

“I feel the same way that you do,” David replied. “I don’t ever recall a single ‘anti-Clemente’ remark, much less ‘ambivalence’, from anyone in Pittsburgh. I know that every time I went to Forbes Field, Clemente received the greatest ovation when the line-ups were announced.

“Moreover, none of the other ‘Caribbean’ Pirate players was an object of negative characterizations. When I read that NYT article, I was almost moved to write a rebuttal expressing my first-person, eye-witness disagreement.”

“In sum,” he concluded, “to say that Pittsburgh fans were ambivalent about him is just plain wrong and wrong-headed.”

Kepner quotes Maraniss as saying Clemente “did not really win the city over completely until he died.”

Bill Virdon, who played next to Clemente in the Pirates’ outfield for 10 years and managed him in 1972, scoffed at the idea that Clemente wasn’t idolized in Pittsburgh but said, in response to the Maraniss remark, “I think it is true he got more popular but he was a very popular individual all along.”

One more point Kepner missed. With the increase of the news media and the Internet, greater attention is focused on milestones and other matters that 30 and 40 years ago got much less attention.

* * *

Great attention was paid recently to a collision at home plate in which catcher Buster Posey’s left leg was wrecked and Brian Sabean, the Giants’ general manager, practically called for Scott Cousins, the runner, to be beheaded.

More recently Carlos Pena ran over Russell Martin, the Yankees’ catcher, at the plate, and no one was hurt and no one said anything. Martin got up and showed Pena he had the ball and Pena was out. It was the way a play at the plate should be handled without anyone calling for a rule to protect the catcher.

There was one difference in the two plays. The throw to Posey came from right field, leaving him more exposed than Martin, who took the throw from left field and had a better view of the oncoming runner. But plays at the plate, wherever the throw comes from, are part of the catcher’s job description.

* * *

For three, four, five years, the New York Yankees pampered Joba Chamberlain and then pampered him some more. There were pitch limits, restriction on number of games and innings, limit on how many more innings he could pitch than the year before. All of the so-designated Joba rules, of course, were aimed at avoiding a sore arm.

Earlier this month Chamberlain suffered an elbow injury that required him to have Tommy John, or reconstructive, elbow surgery. Maybe if the Yankees had let him pitch more in his first few years, he would have strengthened his arm so that he would not have hurt his elbow, or he would have hurt it sooner and be back pitching healthy.

* * *

First, Fred Wilpon, the New York Mets’ owner, puts down the team’s exciting and productive shortstop, Jose Reyes, saying he won’t get Carl Crawford money ($142 million) as a free agent this coming winter, and then general manager Sandy Alderson asks him if he would be interested in signing a contract extension.

Alderson raised the contract question ahead of the July 31 trading deadline, presumably to help him determine whether to try to trade Reyes before the deadline rather than face losing him as a free agent and getting nothing in return.

Reyes told the Mets thanks for asking but he wasn’t interested in negotiating during the season. Good for Jose. And his agent, Peter Greenberg.

Why didn’t the Mets ask him last winter? They might have been able to sign him to an extension and avoid the free-agent quandary and the increased cost of his glittering performance this season. But the Mets weren’t conducting any business last winter.

You remember. Wilpon said repeatedly that his Madoff mess would have no effect on the Mets or their ability to do business.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.