Hi gang, this is Ginny’s friend, Jonathan. Ginny and I “met” back in the days when she was anonymous and I asked to interview her for a story in Pittsburgh magazine. I say “met” in “quotes” because although Ginny kindly agreed to the interview she was fiercely protecting her anonymity. No face-to-face meeting. No telephone. The interview had to be by…IM. This was a first for me. A bit impersonal…but it made note-taking a cinch.
We first met for rillz at the studio of the fabulous Laura Petrilla when she did a photo shoot for Pittsburgh mag. I’m sure she’d agree that our most memorable time was during the week after the January, 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Our friends Jamie and Ali McMutrie were stranded, with dozens of kids in their care. Ginny and I spent long, stressful hours online that week, relaying updated info about J&A’s situation, with Ginny using her powerful presence to spread the word about their plight as far, wide and high as it could go.
You all know the story by now. Jamie and Ali’s bravery. The dramatic rescue. Of course Ginny shares Jamie and Ali’s fierce dedication to helping kids in need, and now we both serve on their board of directors for Haitian Families First.
Jamie and Ali were heroes of mine before the earthquake and even before they were my friends, when I interviewed them in 2008 for Pittsburgh magazine about their work in Haiti. They were deservedly lauded as heroes after the quake, even being named Pittsburgh magazine’s “Pittsburghers of the Year” (a story I was also asked to write). And on the subject of heroes, one of my favorite Ginny happenings over the past year was her learning about Roberto Clemente, my childhood (and forever) hero.
I remember a letter to the editor in Pittsburgh magazine many years ago that made a snarky comment about Pittsburghers “deifying” Roberto Clemente. Yeah, I kinda get that. You throw around words like “worship” and “idol” and “deity” can’t be far behind.
But it’s when people say “wasn’t he just a baseball player?” that those of us who loved him (and there are lots and lots of us who loved him) get flustered. Roberto was a great baseball player, batting and fielding. The numbers show that. But they don’t show the style. They don’t show the way he moved.
I remember when I was 5 sitting on my dad’s lap at Forbes Field (yeah, I’m old, okay?) and I watched Roberto Clemente ground out to first base. I asked my dad, “Who’s that?” When he told me I said, “I like him.” It was that way he moved. I framed a quote by John Sayles, the writer/filmmaker, that reads, “I never thought about being a writer as I grew up. A writer wasn’t something I wanted to be. An outfielder was something to be. Most of what I know about style I learned from Roberto Clemente.”
Like most kids growing up in Pittsburgh in the ‘60s and ‘70s I wanted to be Roberto Clemente. I tried to copy his distinctive batting stance. In Little League I wanted to play right field (though they stuck me at catcher, which was where all the fat kids like me played).
But the effect Roberto had on me went a lot deeper than baseball. For one thing, I was the only Jewish kid in my neighborhood and I was one of the only Jewish kids in my school. So I felt different. And when you’re a kid, feeling “different” equals feeling embarrassed. So there were times I actually felt embarrassed to be Jewish. Roberto Clemente changed that for me. He was different because he was Latin American, one of the first in the majors. But Roberto was openly proud of his Puerto Rican heritage. After he won the MVP in the 1971 World Series, the first thing he did on TV was thank his parents in Spanish. In Spanish! That was powerful stuff to me. If I wanted to be like Roberto, then I, too, could be proud of my heritage, of who I was.
Willie, Roberto and Me
When I was a kid my cousins owned a local appliance and electronics chain called Wander Sales. Willie Stargell used to do promotions for the stores and a few times each summer my dad and I would have Sunday morning breakfast with him. Willie got a kick out of the fact that I didn’t really care that much about him. Yeah, he was a major league baseball player. Yeah, he played for the Pirates and was really nice to me. But all I cared about was Roberto. He’d even tease me about it. I’d always beg him to pleeeease bringing Roberto to the next breakfast. Willie would walk into the restaurant and I would run up to look behind him hoping to see Roberto. I can still hear him now, “Sorry kid. Roberto couldn’t make it.”
On a night in 1971, when I was 10, Willie invited my dad and me to a party at his house. There were a lot of Pirates there and probably a few weren’t so thrilled to have some kid in attendance. The one who was nicest to me, by far, was Dock Ellis. Now I don’t know exactly what “condition” Dock was in (he was notorious for being in altered consciousness), but he put his arm around me and introduced me to the rest of the players, joking and treating me like a king. For a baseball-loving kid in Pittsburgh, this was heaven. Almost. Because there was no Roberto.
The next season, ‘72, I decided that if I was going to ever meet Roberto I would have to do it on my own. At Three Rivers Stadium they used to have Autograph Sundays. Three Pirates would sit at a table in the concourse before the game signing for a long line of kids. When the Sunday finally arrived for it to be Roberto’s turn I waited nervously, fresh baseball in hand. I forget who the first two Pirates at the table were but I respectfully said “no thank you” when they offered their autograph. (Kind of a jerk move on my part, in retrospect.)
When I reached Roberto I was shaking. This was dream-come-true, mind-spinning awe. That is, until the security guard broke in. “The players aren’t allowed to sign baseballs.” Huh? I looked at my dad to see if he had any paper because there were no photos left in front of Roberto. My dad shook his head “no.” Then I felt the ball being lifted out of my hand. I turned and Roberto had reached over the table to take it, shooting the guard a look as if to say, “What am I going to do, hurt myself?” When Roberto handed the ball back to me he smiled, sort of laughed at me, and looked up at my dad. (My dad later said it was because I was shaking and my eyes looked “like fireworks were going on in them.”) Roberto asked me, “Where are you sitting?” I managed a “third base.” He told me to enjoy the game and my dad led me away. I had brought a clear plastic baseball holder and right after Roberto handed me the ball I put the ball right inside. It’s never left that holder since, so the last two hands that touched that baseball are his and mine. As far as I’m concerned it’ll stay that way for as long as I live. Then my son Alex’s hand will be next.
Probably the only time I didn’t want Roberto to get a hit was on Saturday, Sept. 29, 1972. He was still chasing his 3,000th hit and I didn’t want him to get it until the next day when I would be at the game. Sure enough, he didn’t. That next day I was there, my Kodak Instamatic in hand, hoping and cheering for the big moment. As you can see, my pictures after his double off the left-field wall are impossibly shaky. It’s hard to take a decent shot when you’re jumping up and down and yelling “Arriba! Arriba!”.
When Roberto died on New Year’s Eve of that year I was devastated. After all, the one thing Roberto Clemente was not to me was “mortal.” I only went to one game in the 1973 season. I lasted just a couple of innings before I asked my dad to take me home. It was years before I could even watch a video of Roberto without choking up. Every New Year’s Eve since, I have taken a few minutes by myself, usually outside under the stars, to think about Roberto, to be thankful for him, and to think about his family.
In my adult life, I’ve told a few people about the impact of Roberto on me. The most poignant was getting the chance to tell his son, Roberto, Jr. We were doing a photo shoot together, in Three Rivers Stadium, standing in right field. (Perfect, right?) I took him aside. “Roberto, I know you hear this all the time,” I began, almost apologetically. After all, it can’t always be easy being the son of a legend. He graciously listened to every word like it was the first time he’d ever heard this story of reverence for his father. Imagine how proud his father would feel about his son’s kindness.
Like many Pittsburghers (including Ginny), and many others around the world, I learned my greatest lessons from Roberto after his death. The way he died, delivering earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua, affects me to this day.
Which brings me back to my heroes who are also my friends, to Jamie and Ali. Like Roberto, they would not let an earthquake intimidate them when others needed their help. Their own health, their own safety, was not what was important. Helping those in need took precedence.
In Pittsburgh we love our heroes. And we’ve had many. Medicine, sports, the arts, media (I’m looking up at you, Mister Rogers), and everyday people. We’re the City of Champions all right. But our triumphs have to do with a lot more than trophies. Here’s to our heroes.