It was the day after April Fool’s Day, just over a week ago. I was headed into the lobby of the building where my office is located, when a maintenance employee came to me and said, “Aub, you need to take a look at this.”
The title of the article basically read, “Kiner, not Clemente, is greatest Pirate ever,” on the Tribune-Review website, written by Mark Madden.
I initially thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, so I was forced to read it again. Lo and behold, it was not a misprint. I thought this had to be Madden playing an April Fool’s joke on his “base.” However, he wasn’t joking, and I thought the headline was downright foolish.
Everyone knows Madden has a history of saying things to “get a rise” out of you. It’s been going on for decades here in Pittsburgh’s sports scene. He tries to depict himself as some leisure-seeking, man-on-the-beach with his Hawaiian and tropical shirts he wears on TV in the dead of winter. But make no mistake about it…He’s arrogant, caustic, and wrong on this assessment as Kiner being the greatest Pirate ever.
Ralph Kiner’s Major League career spanned 10 years, eight of which were with the Pirates. Madden correctly points out that Kiner led the NL in home runs in seven straight years. But, I say that Kiner never had to face the likes of Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson.
Roberto Clemente, meanwhile, faced and competed against all of them.
Then Madden said this about former Pirate Barry Bonds: “MVP awards (two in seven years as a Pirate) point to Barry Bonds, but lack of popularity negates.”
I saw both Barry Bonds and Roberto Clemente play, so aside from just comparing the numbers of Clemente versus Kiner, it seems to be a bit shallow just to compare and elevate any person or player based upon raw numbers. In 1971, Clemente almost carried the Pirates on his back on Pittsburgh’s way to winning the ’71 World Series. Clemente also patrolled right field for the Bucs in 1960 when the Pirates defeated the heavily favored New York Yankees four games to three to win the World Series. What I am about to tell you now is an incident that is etched into my memory. On July 15, 1967, Clemente hit a low liner that struck Bob Gibson and fractured a bone in his right leg. Unaware of the severity of the injury, Gibson remained in the game and pitched to three more batters before collapsing. Gibson had thrown a brushback pitch at Clemente the pitch before the fateful hit that sidelined Gibson for two months. My father was an electrician at Crucible Steel and the corporation had season tickets. Many nights at Forbes Field my sister “Ricky” and I watched Clemente trotting out to right field before making “basket catches.” Difficult plays seemed relatively easy for Roberto. Ralph Kiner did not have the arm or the legs that Clemente did.
As for Bonds, he did more than that in one season. Roberto Clemente stole 83 bases in his career. Bonds had 514 stolen bases in his career, along with 762 home runs (many were hit even before he was suspected of taking PEDs). Ralph Kiner had 369 home runs and 22 stolen bases.
If we discuss grace, agility and effortless ability, Clemente is the greatest Pirate without question. If we discuss raw ability, speed power and an intuitive feel for the game, Bonds wins hands down. From 1990-1992 the Pirates won three straight NL East Championships with Bonds, of course. Bonds and Clemente made everyone around them better. I don’t know about Ralph Kiner…all we have to go by are his “winning” stats and the Pirates losing record during his tenure.
Mark Madden is 100 percent wrong about this one. Bonds and Clemente, in my opinion, were greater Pirates than Ralph Kiner.
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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