Sunday, December 30, 2007

Legacy of Roberto Clemente

In Spanish, Clemente means merciful. Roberto Clemente lived up to his name.

In the same way that Americans of a certain age will say to each other, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Baseball fans will ask one another, “Where were you when you heard that Roberto Clemente died?”

Roberto Clemente was that important--to Pittsburgh and to baseball, and to the world of sports and beyond.
As we end this year, one that has seen money and drugs foul the world of baseball, we can remember a ball player who allowed us to see athletes as honorable. The word “hero” is often misused—especially in sports--but the true meaning is “one who gives his life to help others”, and that is what Clemente did on December 31, 1972, thirty-five years ago tonight.
Clemente is remembered as one of the best arms in baseball. Many believe he was the greatest right-fielder ever, shining in the outfield, tracking down every ball in range often making spectacular leaping and diving catches. And then there was that throw—all the catcher had to do was stand there.

Known as “The Great One”, Clemente’s lifetime batting average was .317. He earned four National League batting championships, twelve Gold Glove awards, and was National League MVP in 1966 and World Series MVP in 1971. He was the first Latin American player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition to his hard work on the field Clemente worked between games and in the off season helping the poor and visiting sick children in every major league city. He did none of it for media attention.

Bob Prince, colorful announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, used to sing out, “Arriba!” when Clemente came up to bat. In Spanish arriba means “get going” or “get there” and Clemente could get there. December 31, 1972 he was going to Nicaragua to ensure that the relief supplies he gathered would reach the starving victims.

The qualities mentioned by those who played with Clemente or who saw him play are: Pride, fury, grace and always dignity. The poet, Enrique Zorilla, wrote: “What burned in the cheeks of Roberto Clemente was the fire of dignity”.

On September 30, 1972 Clemente drove a double off Met pitcher Jon Matlack for his 3,000 career hit. Three months later, on New Year’s Eve, his life ended when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors.

Even if you care nothing for baseball, or even if you are a Yankee fan who still cringes at the mention of 1960, you can borrow from Clemente’s legacy as you consider your New Year’s resolutions. Roberto Clemente often said, “Any time you have the opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t do it, you are wasting your time on this earth.”
Roberto Clemente died that night in a plane crash en route to Nicaragua bringing relief supplies to victims of an earthquake. He was 38 years old. No time wasted.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

In Defense of Late Shopping

This is one of my favorite days of the year. This afternoon I’ll be heading out to start my Christmas shopping. For a long time I was ashamed to admit that I began holiday preparations with just seven days to go, but the truth is this is my favorite part of the holidays.
When I do let it leak that I’m just starting my shopping there is always some very superior person happy to share that she was all done in July. Well goody, goody, but what fun is that? Nor need you tell me about those gifts you bought on sale last February. You saved how much money doing that? Well goody for you, but saving money is not the spirit of the season.
No, I did not procrastinate. I well know the advice about how to make Christmas shopping easier. But there are some things that don’t get better just by being easier. I’ve read many of those How to Get Organized books, but I’ve also lived through enough tragedy to know that organizing one’s life is an illusion.
I grant you that there may be a moment this week when I will envy those who had their gifts wrapped in July. But that’s kind of like having a good report from the dentist isn’t it? All very wholesome but where’s the fun?
And don’t even get me started on the people who buy their gifts online. How much holiday spirit does it take to point and click? Yes you meet the technical requirement of gift given, but where’s the spirit? Why not just hand everyone on your list a twenty-dollar bill, and say, “Hey, have a go at it”.
I also hate that suggestion that you should have a stash of generic gifts in your closet just in case someone surprises you with a gift and you were not prepared to reciprocate. Think how mean that is. Someone is just about to feel big and generous by surprising you with a gift and you cut them off at the knees with a retaliatory box of bath salts. It’s the cruelest one-upmanship.
Those of us who begin our shopping this week may be enjoying the real spirit of Christmas. We get to watch humanity test itself and see kindness and patience and grace enacted –or honored in the breach--in toy stores and next to the stack of 30% off cashmere turtlenecks.
We also know that the worst characters to run into at the mall now are the, “I was done in August” people who just learned they need one more thing and have to come out and play with the rest of us. They are usually the ones cutting in line or sighing heavily and making lots of eye contact wanting others to share their misery.
No, we who shop now are engaging in holiday ritual much closer to the original: It’s cold out , traffic is as slow as a lane of donkeys, and we get to watch the young family with a triple stroller searching the mall for a changing area. It makes you want to drop to your knees and pray.
Yes, shopping in July could make Christmas nice and tidy. But real life is anything but that. Consider the story of the Holy Family: There was no advance planning; Mary was days away from delivery when they went on a road trip, and she had to give birth in a barn. Not exactly tidy and neat.
The crux of that first Christmas story is that sometimes in the midst of mess and confusion and fear, angels show up and miracles happen.
But in order to experience that you have to be willing to join the fray and put yourself where humans happen to be. Relationships with people are like casinos: You must be present to win.
So this week I’ll be where humanity is. I’m heading out to the mall, bundled up, grinning and bracing myself for encounters with my fellow man. I’ll be trekking in from the outerloop of the parking lot, looking for a few gifts and the real spirit of Christmas.