Remembering Roberto Clemente's 3000th hit  MAR 12 2013

This story by Kevin Guilfoile about his aging father (who worked for the Pirates and the Baseball Hall of Fame) and the mystery of what happened to the bat that Roberto Clemente got his 3,000th hit with is one of my favorite things that I've read over the past few months.

[My father's] personality is present, if his memories are a jumble. He is still funny, and surprisingly quick with one-liners to crack up the staff at the facility where he lives. He is exceedingly polite, same as he ever was. He is good at faking a casual conversation, especially on the phone. But if you sit and talk with him for a long time, he gets very anxious. He starts tapping his forehead with his fingers. "Shouldn't we be going?" he'll say. You tell him there's no place we need to be, but 30 seconds later he'll ask again, "Shouldn't we be going?"

What happens to memories when they're collapsed inside time like this? They don't exactly disappear, they just become impossible to unpack. And so my father, who loved stories so much -- who loved to tell them, who loved to hear them -- can no longer comprehend them. The structure of any story, after all, is that this happened and then that happened, and he can't make sense of any sequence.

That is the real hell of this disease. His own identity has become a puzzle he can't solve.

Objects have stories, too. Puzzles that need to be solved. Like a pair of baseball bats, for instance, that each passed through Roberto Clemente's hands before they passed through my father's. One hung on my bedroom wall throughout my childhood. The other is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

These objects never forget, but they never tell their stories, either.

Without a little bit of luck, we'd never hear them.

Or more than a little luck:

My father has lots of old baseball bats given to him by players he worked with over the years. He has Mickey Mantle bats from his years with the Yankees, and Willie Stargell and Dave Parker bats from his days with the Pirates. The one I always loved best was an Adirondack model with R CLEMENTE embossed in modest block letters, instead of the usual signature burned into the barrel. On the bottom of the knob, Roberto had written a tiny "37" in ballpoint pen, presumably to indicate its weight: 37 ounces. It also had a series of scrapes around the middle where someone had scratched off the trademark stripe that encircled all Adirondack bats. Former Pirates GM Joe Brown gave my dad this bat several years after Roberto died. For much of my childhood it hung on the wall of my bedroom, on a long rack with about a dozen other game-used bats.

My dad had been working at the Hall of Fame for more than a decade when, in 1993, his old friend Tony Bartirome, a one-time Pirates infielder who had become their longtime trainer, came to Cooperstown for a visit. Tony and his wife went to dinner with my folks and then came back to our house to chat. The only way to go to the first-floor washroom in that house was through my old bedroom, and on a trip there, Tony noticed that Adirondack of Clemente's hanging on the wall.

Tony carried it into the living room. He said to Dad, "Where did you get this bat?" My dad told him that Joe Brown had given him the bat as a gift, sometime in the late '70s. "Bill," Tony said. "This is the bat Roberto used to get his 3,000th hit."

My father was confused by this. "That's impossible," he told Tony. "The day he hit 3,000 I went down to the clubhouse, and Roberto himself handed me the bat he used. I sent it to the Hall of Fame. I walk by it every day."

"Well," Tony said. "I have a story to tell you."

It's a wonderful story, read the whole thing. Or get the book: the story is excerpted from Guilfoile's A Drive into the Gap, available here or for the Kindle.

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
A Drive into the Gap   baseball   books   Kevin Guilfoile   Roberto Clemente   sports

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