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Excerpt: 'Clemente'

Roberto Clemente: an intense competitor and a proud man.
Roberto Clemente: an intense competitor and a proud man.

...Like an animal preparing his ground. Or maybe fortifications, that is the metaphor that popped into one observer's head --a French general preparing his fort. He would hold his bat with his left hand and raise the other toward the ump -- momentito, momentito for Momen -- as he rearranged dirt and dust with his polished leather shoes, spikes gleaming, until it was just right. By now the pitcher was ticked. But there was little in the way of filibustering from then on, no constant stepping out of the box and repeating a superstitious ritual after every pitch, aside from the occasional revolving of the neck. When his workplace was ready, he would take his stance, left leg coiled, hands back, stance way off the plate, back near the line, beseeching the ball, bring it on. He would take the first pitch, almost always, in order to calculate the timing and motion, but then let it rip. And for someone not known as a slugger, what a rip it was. Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times sports columnist who made his living off metaphors, wrote that Clemente "had a batting style like a man falling down a fire escape." His swing, Bruce Laurie thought, was the mirror image of the throw -- "a great swirling motion in blinding speed that routinely dislodged his batting helmet." Both Laurie and Fineman felt this odd sensation, a ripple of joy even in a Clemente swing and miss. There was such pent-up intensity in the moment that it seemed to Fineman that Clemente's "entire being was at stake with every pitch." One image that stuck was of him flinging himself and the bat toward a high-outside pitch and literally leaving his feet altogether to make contact, stroking a shot down the right-field line.

Donn Clendenon and other teammates would joke that there were three great left-handed pull hitters in the National League who scared the hell out of every first baseman: Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, and Roberto Clemente, who, of course, was no lefty at all.

In repose, there was a grace and beauty to Clemente. "Compact, flawlessly sculpted, with chiseled ebony features and an air of unshakable dignity," Roy McHugh reflected later. "He carried himself -- everybody noticed this -- like royalty." At times, as Clemente posed on second after a double, McHugh thought of "Michelangelo's statue of David -- David wearing a baseball uniform." But in action everything changed; Clemente was all fury and agitation. A writer once described Willie Mays as liquid smooth. With Clemente, there was a liquid nature to his eyes and body, but only until he ran; then it was gone. Steve Blass and his Pirates teammates took goofy joy in watching Clemente run. He ran everything out, first of all, full speed, head down, every feeble tap back to the pitcher, and he worked so hard at running. They would tell him he looked like a broken windmill, every limb rotating a different direction. Clemente didn't actually run, they would say, he galloped.

From Clemente by David Maraniss. Copyright © 2006 by David Maraniss. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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