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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Roberto Clemente's World Series


October 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

The way Ivan Rodriguez carried his Florida Marlins past the San Francisco Giants took me back 32 Octobers to Roberto Clemente's World Series.

The statistics show Clemente hit .414 in the 1971 World Series, even better than the .353 Rodriguez hit in his four games against the Giants. But there are some baseball moments that stats can't measure. These two series show why.

Clemente had won four batting titles by the fall of ' 71. He had just won his 11th consecutive Gold Glove. He had been in 11 All- Star Games. But he was justifiably regarded as the second-best right fielder in that series.

Frank Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles, a year younger than Clemente at 35, had hit 503 of his 586 home runs by that autumn. Robinson had won the Most Valuable Player award in both leagues. This was his fifth World Series. His Orioles were world champs. Robinson was the man.

I was a bored 15-year-old boy (there's another kind?) wandering through a Long Island mall on a Saturday afternoon that October. My friends and I came upon a TV showing the sixth game of the World Series. The memory of a lithe man running, sliding and throwing is a blur now, but we were mesmerized. We did not move for hours.

We were Mets fans mostly, so we knew about Clemente. But we had never seen a man have a game such as this. I looked it up yesterday and was surprised to read the Pirates lost in the 10th inning, 3-2. Robinson scored the winning run with a daring dash home on a flyout to center. But the headline in The Pittsburgh Press read, "If Clemente Were Only Twins." If he had been playing center field as well as right, Robinson would never have scored. He never would have tried.

Clemente had tripled his first time up. He then homered over Robinson's head, his 11th hit of the Series. In the bottom of the ninth, with the winning run on first base for the Orioles, Clemente fielded a carom in the right-field corner, whirled and threw a one- hop strike to the plate, keeping the runner at third. That wasn't enough that game, but Clemente homered the next day in the decisive 2-1 victory. He was named MVP.

"Pudge" Rodriguez, 31, just had a series like that, albeit a shorter, more obscure one. In his 13th season of what is assuredly a Hall of Fame career, this catcher provided the bat, arm, glove, wheels and guts his team needed to win.

On Friday, with the series tied at 1-1, he hit a two-run homer on an 0-2 pitch in the first inning. In the bottom of the 11th, with his Marlins down, 3-2, he hit a two-out, two-strike single with the bases loaded to win the game, 4-3.

On Saturday, Rodriguez picked off a runner at first base in the sixth inning to end a Giants rally. With two outs in the eighth of a 5-5 game, he came barreling home from second base on a two-out single, knocking the ball out of the glove of Giants catcher Yorvit Torrealba. Two runs scored.

Then came the ninth. With two outs and one run already in for the Giants, J.T. Snow tried to score the tying run from second base on a single to left. The ball arrived home just ahead of him. Snow lowered an elbow. Rodriguez -- listed at 5 feet 9, 218 pounds -- took the hit and flipped over. Then he raised the ball as if it were the heart of a Giant. It might as well have been.

Rodriguez is a lifetime .304 hitter who has been compared to some of the greatest catchers of all time. But this 10-time All-Star has toiled in the baseball backwaters of Texas and Florida. His moment in the October spotlight nicely echoes another great player's. Rodriguez was born in Puerto Rico in the fall of 1971.

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