I really feel bad, because we miss him so bad," says Manny Sanguillen, the erstwhile Pirate catcher who has been assigned both Roberto Clemente's locker and the task of trying to replace him in right field this spring. "The last few years, to me he feel like my family. We used to have fun together, you know. Like when he try to make a home run inside the park, and Willie Mays throw him out. I put a towel down in the dressing room and slide into it and say, 'Oh, oh, I an old man now.'
"I don't like to talk too much about him. Everything come to my mind about him."
Dave Giusti, the Pirate player representative, cites another reason not to dwell on the memory of his late, inimitable teammate, who died Dec. 31 in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico while trying to fly relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
"He's gone," says Giusti, "and there's not a thing we can do about it. And it may not be wise to talk too much about it. We might start thinking we're going to lose, when instead we should be thinking, 'Hell, we got up to 12 games ahead last year when he was out for quite a while.' "
There is a memorial plaque on the door of Clemente's room in Pirate City, the team's training complex in Bradenton, Fla., and commemorative coins are sold at the games. Each Pirate wears a strip of black material tacked onto his left shoulder.
"But baseball ain't gonna stop for nobody," says Pirate slugger Willie Stargell. "It's just a big business and it's gotta keep goin'."
On the bulletin board in the dressing room someone has pinned a newspaper clipping headlined BENCH SAYS PIRATES WON'T BE SAME WITHOUT CLEMENTE. In the story the Cincinnati catcher says the Pirates won't come off the bench swinging anymore without Clemente to inspire them.
"That's his opinion," says Stargell. "Opinions are like behinds, everybody's got one."
But the Pirates no longer have the man who averaged .317 over 18 years, got precisely 3,000 hits and played right field the way Segovia plays a malague√±a, only with more bravura. How will they replace him?
Well, the power to get those big Clemente-model Pirate bats around and into the pitch has not passed away with Roberto. Without him Pittsburgh still has nine men—Sanguillen, Stargell, Gene Clines, Milt May, Dave Cash, Vic Davalillo, Rich Hebner, Al Oliver and Rennie Stennett—whose combined lifetime major league batting average is .289. And the list does not include Bob Robertson, who when not slumping is the team's second-best home-run threat.
Just last Saturday the Pirates beat Kansas City on four 380- to 440-foot home runs interspersed with shot after shot after shot. The Pirates did not just dump balls into the outfield or hit a lot of scraggly little grounders. They hit in bold strokes. Rip, rip, rip.
What won't be the same about the Pirates is the defense. As good a hitter as Clemente was, he was a better fielder. "Sometime this year," says pitching ace Steve Blass, "somebody is going to go from first to third against us on a single to right. And I'm going to be shocked. It's never happened before, in all the time I've been in the big leagues, because Clemente has always been there. I'll find myself backing up first base on the play, because Clemente knew the lead runner wasn't going to try anything against him, so he'd try to pick off the hitter taking too big a turn."
"Somebody would hit the ball against us," recalls Sanguillen, "and we all say, 'It's gone.' We don't even know Clemente is running. And then he go 'poom' against the fence and catch the ball. I don't know how he do it."
Nobody else knows how, either, but it falls to Sanguillen, one of baseball's best catchers but an untried outfielder, to take over in right if he can, and if he can be suitably replaced behind the plate. Sanguillen is one of the few catchers the game has known who has not only the hands, arm and bat but also the speed and heart to take on such a challenge. And to date Sanguillen has played only 30 or 40 games in the outfield, most of them in winter league ball.
In his second game in right field this spring Sanguillen fell down before coming to terms with a single and did some unnecessary scrambling while chasing down a double. Last year in St. Louis, in one of his two outfield appearances, he ran straight at a line drive to his right instead of cutting back to get it on the hop, then lost it in the lights. He fell and three runs scored.
"But I would have caught it in the air if it hadn't been for the lights," Sanguillen says, and maybe—shades of Ron Swoboda in the 1969 World Series—he will be a man to make the unconventional great play. After all, he can hit a ball off his ear or off his toe on a line to any point in the park, and he has organized a flurry of long arms and legs into a consistently distinguished catching performance.
Still, it will be some time before Sanguillen settles in. "You don't know if you going to make the play," he says. "You not sure you going to throw the ball the right place. It is like looking for a new family. Home plate was my family."
The removal of Sanguillen from the catcher-infield family raises doubts about its stability. Young May seems capable but still has to prove himself as a regular catcher. And an infield of Hebner, 32-year-old Gene Alley, Cash and Stargell is not the most agile in baseball. One thing that hurt the Pirates in last year's playoffs was that too many ground balls got through that infield.
Stargell, an excellent leftfielder, is a so-so first baseman; Robertson is vice versa. But Stargell will be at first and Robertson—or Clines, Davalillo, Stennett or rookie Rich Zisk—will be in left, because Stargell cannot subject his bad knees to any more outfield pounding.
So this may be the first Pirate team in at least 19 years without any dash afield. It is Stargell's belief, however, that "we'll miss the man more than the ballplayer. There are a lot of men going around saying they're great, but there aren't many good men left."
"Big game or not," says May, "Clemente was always diving to make a play. You'd think, who am I to loaf if a fella like that is busting his butt?"
"But it wasn't life and death every moment," says Blass. "Three minutes before game time he'd be stretched out naked on the training table. We timed him once at 34 seconds getting into a full uniform. We laid it all out and it just jumped on him.
"We'll miss his agitating. Other guys, people just look up for a minute and say, 'Oh, that's just Johnson yelling at Blass again.' But when Clemente got to going back and forth with somebody, you knew it was something good, and a crowd would gather."
"Baltimore without Frank Robinson," a baseball man said when Robinson was traded to L.A., "is like, God forbid, a mother of six young children dying." Clemente was not the same kind of strong, stalwart figure on the Pirates. He was a more complex human being. He was very proud, and could seem very innocent and also very defensive. He didn't like to play when he fell below par, because he didn't like to misrepresent his abilities. And some of the complaints that kept him below par seemed exotic. The Pirate team he came up with resented his peculiarities, and he remained distant. After the 1960 World Series he dressed quickly, left the clubhouse celebration and went down to whoop it up with the fans.
The grandness with which Clemente approached the '71 Series might have put off many teammates. Stargell was not hitting, Clemente told Sanguillen, so "I'm going to have to sacrifice myself to hit the long ball." The possibility for friction existed between Clemente and Stargell, who always played hurt. There was no such friction.
Clemente's fellow stars in the last few years seemed to realize that having him around was well worth their accepting his own rich sense of himself. And as intent as they were last week on looking ahead and advancing their own careers, they didn't have to be prodded much to talk about Clemente. "I wanted the chance to play," said May, "but if this is what it took for me to get it...."
"He told me that the last three years he was the happiest man in the world," said Sanguillen. "He say, 'When I am sick and go home now I listen to you guys play on radio and I'm so happy because of all the talents. I know somebody going to do something.'
"When he die it was so big in Puerto Rico people stop everything. Nobody have any more parties for New Year's. Everybody go to the beach to try to find him. Try to find the body or at least something. I was really hurt for his wife. I know how much one and the other used to love, and be together. She went down to the beach every day, too, to pray or see what she could do. I think she is still going down there.
"Clemente is still on the ball club. His spirit belong here. You know how great he was in the outfield. And he gives his life for somebody he don't know."
A plaque marks Clemente's old room.
Making a shaky start as Roberto's replacement in right field, Sanguillen reaches for a fly.