Time to wrap up this set of reviews – but first a book note: Next time round, I'm hoping Michael Lewis’s new one, The Blind Side, will be a part of it (if you haven’t read the New York Times excerpt from a few weeks back, check it out).
So here we go, after Messrs. Bidini, Brunt and Skyrme, it’s David Maraniss’s turn with Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. Maraniss’s tome on Vince Lombardi from a few years back is about the best sports bio I’ve ever read. Clemente is a little different: A story about societal change, and about a life cut short - he had no second act. Just when it seemed like baseball’s first Latin American superstar was winding down his career, he literally disappeared into the ocean while taking supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve, 1972.
Clemente’s baseball bona fides are undisputed and well-documented. But it’s his life in his native Puerto Rico, his desire to help those in need, his love-hate relationship with America, and especially that last flight in a rickety, overloaded, fly-by-night charter airplane (and its aftermath, Clemente’s death plunging his native Puerto Rico, and a Pittsburgh that had come to embrace him, into deep mourning) that Maraniss sketches out with precision that sometimes chills to the bone. Drawing on official documents and investigations from over three decades ago, these read like short sharp daggers unsheathed and pointed, as in this excerpt detailing the negligence of the doomed plane’s owner, after a series of repairs suggested but not ordered by the FAA were due:
“The airplane ought to be ready for a test hop,” one inspector said, after seeing the repair work. But Rivera couldn’t do the test hop himself. He still didn’t know how to taxi his own plane, let alone fly it.
The fatal flight is the climax of the story, but only a piece of a satisfying whole. This is a portrait of the baseball artist as a noble young trailblazer, and three decades on, Clemente's legacy is as plain as the playing fields of the big leagues, where the likes of Manny Ramirez, Ozzie Guillen and Pedro Hernandez owe a great deal to his figure and his story. Maraniss puts it this way:
The mythic aspects of baseball usually draw on cliches of the innocent past, the nostalgia for how things were. Fields of green. Fathers and sons. But Clemente's myth arcs the other way, to the future, not the past, to what people hope they can become. His memory is kept alive as a symbol of action and passion, not of reflection and longing. He broke racial and language barriers and achieved greatness and died a hero. That word can be used indiscriminately in the world of sports, but the classic definition is of someone who gives his life in the service of others, and that is exactly what Clemente did.
An elegant read from a writer who has already set the bar very high for writing about sports.