PNC Park

San Diego Padres @ Pittsburgh Pirates

2010 Regular Season at PNC Park. The Pittsburgh Pirates host the San Diego Padres for the second of a three-game series. Adrian Gonzalez was still holding first base down for the San Diego Padres. The team recently swept the Pirates in the six previous games they played in. Andrew McCutchen was in his sophomore year. Pirates were in the process of rebuilding the team around him. Though the Pittsburgh Pirates finished last in the NL Central Division with a 57-105 record, these “Bucs” would manage to win their first post season berth in 2013, 2014, and 2015. In 2013, the Pirates advanced to a best of five NL Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, a hard-fought matchup that they lost. The next two seasons ended abruptly as the Pirates would lose each of the single elimination wild card games. These were the first play-off hopes since 1992 when Barry Bonds and crew were so close but yet so far from the World Series. But the Pirates faithful never forgets the Iconic Honus Wagner of the early years, Willie Stargell in the “Family” of the 1970’s, and of course the greatness of Roberto Clemente. There is a statute of each one out side PNC Park as a reminder. A memorial from Forbes Field was relocated in PNC Park and can be found in the hallway behind home plate.

Founded in 1882, this Pittsburgh National League ball club has won five World Series Championships (1909, 1925, 1960, 1971, & 1979). PNC Park opened in 2001 and is the sixth MLB field in Pittsburgh. The two more popular and recent ones are Three Rivers Stadium (1970-2000) and Forbes Field (1909-1970). Ball Parks were originally made of wood. They easily caught fire. The first stadiums built of wrought iron, concrete, and steel were Forbes Field and Connie Mack Stadium. That was no coincidence. The steel mills of the early 20th Century were here in the State of Pennsylvania. They helped usher in the Industrial Revolution, building the Brooklyn Bridge and the first sky scrapers. Hence, the “Steel City.” This is a blue-collar town.

The memory of Roberto Clemente is ever present in the Steel City.  Since 2002, the official Roberto Clemente Day in all 30 MLB Parks is always on September 21. But, on any given day of the week, it’s hard to forget “The Great One’ when you’re here, signs of him everywhere, from the number 21 jerseys worn by countless fans in the stands, to the statue, to the bridge named after him, to the signs and memorials. Then there is the Roberto Clemente Museum on Penn Avenue. As I walked around PNC Park, the feel was like that of Jackie Robinson Day.

The colors black & gold is synonymous with Pittsburgh. They are used by Hockey’s Penguins, Football’s Steelers, and Baseball’s Pirates. The pride near the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers run deep. They meet in the downtown area just as its citizens do during game day. PPG Paints Arena, Heinz Field, and PNC Park are all walking distance from each other.

You can take the Duquesne Incline up to the South Side neighborhood to get a view of the entire Downtown Pittsburgh where the Sixth Street Bridge, the Roberto Clemente Bridge, and the Andy Worhal Bridge come into perspective. During the day, the view of Downtown from up there is a must see. You can almost reach out and touch the metropolitan microcosm. At night, the view is magical. PNC Park is considered one of, if not the best, stadiums in Major League Baseball, and rightfully so.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium

New York Mets @ Florida Marlins

2010 Regular Season at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The Florida Marlins hosted the New York Mets for a three-game series in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. The humidity was thick in the air. Any sudden move would initiate a watershed moment of profuse perspiration. Players were claiming their spot near the cooling fans in the dugouts. But it was a privilege to take part of an event such as this. It wasn’t the first time MLB visited Puerto Rico. In 2003, Omar Minaya, the General Manager of the Montreal Expos, promoted 22 home games in Puerto Rico to help generate revenue for a troubled franchised. It was a success and it set the table for this series to happen. This time he was on hand as the General Manager of the New York Mets. Fun fact; David Samson, the former Executive VP of the Montreal Expos, who took part in its fallout and led the negotiations of the Florida Marlins purchase in 2002, was also on hand as President of the Florida Marlins.

Among the other dignitaries, Mrs. Vera Clemente, the widow of Roberto Clemente, and her son Luis Clemente were presented a donation of $37,050 for San Jorge Children’s Hospital during a pre-game ceremony. Just recently, Edwin Rodriguez was hired as Florida Marlins Manager; making him the first Manager of Puerto Rican origin in MLB history. It was an unforeseen circumstance. The previous Manager, Fredi Gonzalez was fired for sitting Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez down during a game after a lack of hustle. The front office questioned his decision to take the team’s star out of the line-up. Legend Bobby Cox was retiring and put in a good word for Fredi Gonzalez to replace him as Manager of the Atlanta Braves. Hanley Ramirez would later move to third base in 2012 to make room for short stop Jose Reyes who was starting in this game for the New York Mets. Mike Stanton, a player to be renamed later as Giancarlo Stanton, had just debuted with the Florida Marlins in early June. This was also a special day for his family in more ways than one. His maternal great great grand mother was from Puerto Rico.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium was named after the first Puerto Rican MLB player. He pitched for the Chicago Cubs between 1942 & 1946; also serving in the U.S. Navy (1944-45). His final season was with the Chicago White Sox in 1947. He paved the way for many players to come. Professional Baseball in Puerto Rico can be traced back to 1938. But, baseball’s origin on the island goes back to the 1890’s during the Spanish American War. Ironic that it’s start was during a time of war, just as it was during the Civil War on the mainland. Baseball always has a way of bringing people together, even in a time of war. Its not a coincidence that Hiram Bithorn Stadiums’ Art Deco design is similar to that of Dodger Stadium. The most common element is the “V” or “W” shaped roof line seen in both parks. They opened a year from each other in the sixties when that style took a resurgence. It gave Americana a mood of optimism and hopefulness that later flourished into the hippie culture.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium has played an integral part of professional Baseball in Puerto Rico. Leysa Caro Gonzalez from “El Nueva Dia” recently reported on a proposal by a Candidate for San Juan Mayor (Rosanna Lopez) called “San Juan se Recrea y Compite.” It promotes a healthy living via physical activity and nutrition. Hiram Bithorn Stadium would be an important part of this endeavor. It’s a response to the downside of stay at home living due to COVID-19. The concern among those in some circles on the island is that it did not mention anything about professional baseball. They’ve seen this same lack of priorities for the game of baseball that is attributed to the decline of the sport 10-15 years ago and the eventual cancelation of the 2007-2008 Winter League Season, due to lack of funding. The hope is that this time there is a groundswell of support to advocate for professional baseball. Just as the mainland, its yet another thing at stake in an election year.     

Roberto Clemente Memories

“Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente” was a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition. Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio, and with the support of Smithsonian Latino Center, collaborated on creating this exhibit. It traveled across the United States from 2007 to 2012 and was on exhibit here at Orange County Regional History Museum (Downtown Orlando, Florida) from January to March of 2012.

Here is a list of the places visited:

  1. Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, Louisville, Ky (10/20/07 to 2/24/08)
  2. Georgia Highlands College, Rome, Ga (3/15/08 to 5/11/08)
  3. National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tn (6/5/08 to 7/27/08)
  4. Greene County Public Library, Xenia, Oh (8/16/08 to 10/12/08)
  5. Collier County Parks and Recreation, Naples, Fl (11/1/08 to 1/3/09)
  6. Hoard Historical Museum, Fort Atkinson, Wi (1/24/09 to 3/22/09)
  7. Austin Public Library, Austin, Mn (4/11/09 to 6/7/09)
  8. Broward County Library, Fort Lauderdale, Fl (6/27/09 to 8/23/09)
  9. Red Cloud Opera House at the Cather Center, Ne (9/12/09 to 12/6/09)
  10. Elmhurst Historical Museum, Elmhurst, Il (1/16/10 to 4/11/10)
  11. California University of Pennsylvania, California, Pa (5/1/10 to 8/29/10)
  12. Little League Museum, Williamsport, Pa (9/18/10 to 11/14/10)
  13. Chattanooga African American Museum, Tn (12/4/10 to 1/30/11)
  14. Challenger Space Center, Peoria, Az (2/19/11 to 4/17/11)
  15. El Museo Latino, Omaha, Ne (5/7/11 to 7/17/11)
  16. Warrren County Historical Society, Lebanon, Oh (8/27/11 to 10/16/11)
  17. Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History, Baltimore, Md (11/5/11 to 12/30/11)
  18. Orange County Regional History Museum, Orlando, Fl (1/21/12 to 3/18/12)
  19. Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, Chicago, Il (4/7/2012 to 6/3/2012)

Items on exhibit have been archived at Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in Washington DC. I visited the exhibit on the day of the screening of the film “Roberto Clemente: A Touch of Royalty”. This documentary follows the triumphant & tragic end of Roberto Clemente’s life. Donald Fedynak (Writer and Director) was on hand to discuss the making of the film. It was a great conversation that gave everyone in the room insight on those first days after the crash. In this rare film, there is a scene of people that have gathered along the shores of Puerto Rico near the known accident looking in the distance for hope. “Solo Dios hace al hombre feliz,” sang the crowd. “Man is happy but by the Grace of God,” the English translation. The recurring theme of the film is the contrast between the life of a happy man and the pain of a grieving community.

My Family moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago, Illinois in the fall of 1973; nine months after his death. Sometimes, while watching the Chicago Cubs games on WGN Television, they would play this film during rain delays. I would always shed a tear. From an early age, I discovered that there was something, greater than ourselves, to live for. All that is left are faded images of him in his road greys, playing the Chicago Cubs, walking up to bat with the brick wall behind home plate of Wrigley Field. Those were the wonder years. “Roberto Clemente: A Touch of Royalty” captures that moment for future generations to know him.

This past August 18th would’ve been his 86th Birthday. 48 years later, the world celebrates his life while still feeling that loss. His legacy is synonymous with taking humanitarian action in a time of need and with the value of service to others.

University of Pirates

Spring Training 2010 at Pirates City minor league complex in Bradenton, Florida. It had recently been renovated, including all the comforts of a typical university campus. With dormitories, common areas, and services nearby, the prospects also eat, sleep, & live here. Training sessions resembled auditions, multiple stations and assignments, all of it being recorded on the numerous clipboards, stopwatches, and radars, lots of moving parts. They dared to chase a dream on the farm. The coaching staff really went out of the way to be cordial to the visitors. The family environment felt as if they we’re our kids out there. This is the “Pirates City” minor league complex that includes 80 dormitory rooms, offices, cafeteria, conference areas, storage space, locker rooms, and 5 baseball fields.

It was an accidental find. I set out to see the Boston Red Sox play the Pittsburgh Pirates at their home field in Bradenton (currently named LECOM park). Josh Beckett was pitching for the Red Sox. But, LECOM park is 3.5 miles east of “Pirate City. I used a “Tom Tom GPS” and it somehow brought me here instead. Don’t judge, we weren’t attached to our smartphones yet and I probably still had a flip phone. Room 231, in the dormitories, is dedicated to Roberto Clemente where he stayed every spring; not sure what the layout was like back then. But, the thought that these are Roberto Clemente’s old stomping grounds was worth the trip. The 2012 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, lived in Bradenton. For him, it was probably a longer trip to the mall than reporting to Spring Training.

This week, MLB has also been about scrimmage games. The games are not new. But, they normally transition to another level of training. In this case, scrimmage games are being maximized for their worth. Playing 6-7 innings with little regard for the score. Teams implement the various situations; like shifting the infielders or starting the inning with a man on second. So, what will baseball look like in 2020? It’s as clear as mud. Its 30 teams of 60 players treading water in a proverbial salmon run.

The 2020 season starts Thursday July 23rd with Washington vs. New York Yankees at 7:08PM ET. Fans want the game back. But, that wish comes with some concerns; including changes in the game. Things different about the game will be no fans, social distancing protocols, and new game rules. The biggest change will be the void or absence of the player development pipeline that is the minor leagues. That alone will have long term affects. Before the pandemic, MLB offered a proposal to MiLB, regarding the player development, that would eliminate 42 teams from the minor league systems, among other cutbacks. The pandemic accelerated the direction MLB was already going in. Stay tuned for the players in those extra reserve teams. You may find a few sneaky MVP-walk off-pick to click-game changers-that find the feeding. For them, its show time.

Baseball Woke

Roberto Clemente 1959 Topps Baseball Card.

My love for the game motivates me to travel in a pilgrimage to further understand what baseball means to people and its role in American Culture. Certain things in baseball remind me of certain parts of my life. And, I can trace it back to my childhood, when I first knew about this perfect game. I call it my baseball awakening. I can clearly remember games that were played decades ago. But, for me, it feels like it happened last week. “There are places I remember. All my life though some have changed” – The Beatles. 

Baseball means different things for different people. Yet, its never failed to bring peace and joy to all, regardless of what happens outside the lines. For me, its more than just a sport. It’s a dream that never dies, an everlasting thread. But, when you unravel it, you discover it leads to something greater than any one person who ever played the game. It tells the story of us. For me, It transcends time. In the Ken Burns Baseball Documentary, He depicts baseball in a ride through American History, just as he did with his films on the Civil War and on Jazz. The mother of Ken Burns died when he was 11 years old. He recalls that there never was a time when he did not know that his mother was sick. His father in law, a Psychologist, once told him his work was an attempt to make people long gone come back to life.

Beneath statistics and game observations, there is the universal story of a boyhood dream to play in the big leagues. My childhood hero was Roberto Clemente. I was 6 years old when he died in that airplane accident. In the study of human behavior, a child’s self awareness, meaning the ability to tune into one’s emotions, thoughts, and actions, begins to develop from the time of birth to the age of 4-5 years old. I’ve had baseball dreams for as long as I can remember. Roberto Clemente is one of my first memories. His passing left a huge void in the millions of lives he touched. I’m one. My sense of loss has grown over the years. I reach to know more about him, also in an attempt to bring him back to life. He left us all way too young. But, his 38 years in this world contains volumes of lessons in life that are timeless. “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth,” – Roberto Clemente.