“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” — 2 Corinthians 4:16
We love and honor athletes for some of the most remarkable physical feats. How can they make the human body do what they make it do? Magnificent catches, powerful kicks, breath-taking leaps — we can’t help but be amazed sometimes.
Of course, much of what comes to mind are the athlete’s successes, and that is as it should be. We should marvel and enjoy those feats, especially when performed by our favorite team or athlete. But what about those times when our favorite team or athlete falters: the fall, the fumble, the error, the missed shot, the high stick, the penalty kick. Not as inspiring? Sometimes it can be.
When I followed Pittsburgh Pirates baseball player Roberto Clemente, there were many, many successes to see and hear about. He was human, however, and he did strike out — to my amazement. He didn’t always throw out the runner going for the extra base. Ironically, two of those less-than-glowing moments from his career stand out in my mind and put him in an even higher echelon, because he transformed them with his persistence.
In 1994, Charley Feeney, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor who became TSN’s Pirates correspondent in 1969, spoke with writer Jim O’Brien. He recalled a play in Pittsburgh at Forbes Field that became known as “The Throw.”
The Pirates were playing the St. Louis Cardinals, who had runners on first and third. Orlando Cepeda was the runner on first base. Cardinal catcher Tim McCarver singled to right field, easily driving in the runner on third base and moving Cepeda to second. But, the ball uncharacteristically rolled through Clemente’s legs, so Cepeda ended up moving to third and began steamrolling for home.
Instead of giving up or dwelling on his mistake, Clemente charged after the ball, which got to the warning track in right field, picked it up with his back to home plate, whirled and rifled a throw on the fly directly to Pirates catcher Jerry May, who tagged out an amazed Cepeda trying to score.
Feeney said he looked at the oldest person in the press box at the time, Leo Ward, who had been watching baseball for years, and Ward said, “If I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t believe it.” McCarver thought that was the best throw he had ever seen in his career. Of course, Clemente’s ability to throw the ball that far without taking time to eye his target was stunning. But what separated the entire play from others is that a tremendous play grew out of a terrible one, and that was because Clemente did not give up. He did not sulk. Because of an especially bad play, an incredible one took place.
God can transform failure.
The other play that sticks in my mind may have been the turning point in the 1971 World Series. It was Game 3, and after getting shellacked in Baltimore by the Orioles in the first two games, the Pirates would host the next three in Pittsburgh. The Pirates had a 2-1 lead going into the fifth inning. Clemente was playing brilliantly, even though the Pirates had lost the first two games.
To lead off the fifth inning, though, Clemente tapped a ball back to the pitcher, Mike Cuellar. It was a weak hit unbecoming of such a star player. Many of us have seen some major-league players not even bother running on such weak hits. Cuellar may have been expecting just that. As a left-handed pitcher, Cuellar casually went to his right to field the ball with his back to first base. After retrieving the ball, he turned to throw and witnessed a freight train barreling toward first base. Caught off guard, Cuellar turned his nonchalance to hurry, threw the ball erratically and pulled the first baseman off the base. This error allowed Clemente to be on base.
His hustle changed the momentum of the game, and possibly of the World Series. Pirates left fielder Willie Stargell then drew a walk, and first baseman Bob Robertson, apparently missing a bunt sign, clobbered a home run to left-center field. This put the Pirates ahead 5-1, a score that pitcher Steve Blass made stand.
The Pirates went on to win three of the next four games, winning the series with Clemente starring in every facet of the game. But on a play that could have been an easy out — usually is an easy out — a play that is a failure for a hitter, Clemente expended every bit of speed he had to get to first base. He again turned failure into a gateway for success.
There is no time for sulking, and no time for feeling sorry for yourself. When you let the ball go through your legs, don’t lose heart. When you weakly hit the ball back to the pitcher, don’t lose heart.
Do not lose heart. God is at work in every situation.
— Joe McDonagh
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