Forty years ago today

The fondest sports memories of my youth took place primarily at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. In the 1970s the Pirates, and then, the Steelers, found ways to win. It helped a community through an economic downturn to have one thing, just one thing, to feel good about during the week (or at the end of the week).

The Steelers had plenty of names – Bradshaw, Franco, Mean Joe, Jack Splat, Dobre Shunka, Rocky – plenty of Hall of Famers, too. A trip to training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe was an opportunity to see giants – literal giants of the game – walk past you between the practice field and the locker room.

The Pirates had two distinct periods in the ’70s. I was just old enough for the second, when Willie Stargell, by then the most seasoned of veterans, along with the Fam-A-Lee, found a way around a deep Orioles pitching staff to win the 1979 World Series.

But years earlier, it was another seasoned veteran, who led the Pirates. And forty years ago today, he registered his 3,000th regular season major league hit.

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His name was Roberto Clemente.

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And a mere three months after this play, his last regular-season plate appearance in the season, he was dead, trying to take relief supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake, his overloaded plane crashing just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1972.

I was too young to see Roberto play. I’ve seen him at his best, though, on the field and off. MLB will occasionally show one of the games of the 1971 World Series. His arm in Right Field, his legs on the base paths…he played a different game than anyone ever. Off the field, his legacy lives on in the sports city in his name, and in the hearts of Puerto Ricans and Pittsburghers who share the stories of his legacy and his devotion to his fellow man.

Much has been written of the events of these days. David Maraniss’ wonderfully poetic biography speaks of Clemente’s life in total. Bob Cohn at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review penned a very nice column today on the at-bat itself. And if you’ve never read it, find a copy of W.P. Kinsella’s short story “Searching for January”. It’s in his short-story collection, The Dixon Cornbelt League (as an aside, there are no bad Kinsella stories – as much as I like Shoeless Joe, I love The Iowa Baseball Confederacy).

As a long-time Pittsburgh resident and by default a sports fan, one big thought:

The passing of Roberto before his time marked a point of transition for the city from a baseball town to a football town. When Roberto got hit number 3,000, the Steelers were 1-1 in the beginning of what would seem a magical season. Roberto’s plane crash took place nine days after the Immaculate Reception. From that day forward, the franchise which hadn’t won a thing in its’ first forty years – the Steelers – would win twenty division titles, eight Conference Championships, and six Super Bowl titles.

As for the Pirates? While they would close out the decade on a high note, the ’80s would be best known for the drug trials and for lackluster play (joggin’ George Hendrick, anyone?). The ’90s would begin with so much promise. Three straight division titles. Three straight playoff disappointments, each more painful than the last. And since then? Since that season, twenty years after Roberto’s last hit? Twenty years of losing, unprecedented in team sport in America (well, at least last night, a losing season was averted for one more day thanks to the bat of Andrew McCutchen). Half of the time since Roberto’s last hit has been continuous losing.

We fans still hold out hope, though – however implausible it might be. There is, always, next year.

Ask a Steelers fan in 1972 – or a few years earlier, at the arrival of yet another head coach, an assistant from Baltimore – whether there was hope after almost four decades of losing.

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