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  • Writer's picturePenny Sterling

Donn Clendenon & The Foul Ball

I’ve never caught a foul ball. Never. Which is weird, since I’ve gone to so many baseball games. I’ve picked up a few that have rattled around seats, of course, I’ve had a few whiz by just out of my reach, but I’ve never been in position to actually catch a ball.

Except once.

It was in Pittsburgh, in 1969. The Pirates were playing the Mets at Forbes Field. This was to be the last year for the old ballpark. It was to be demolished at season’s end and the Pirates (and the football Steelers) would be sharing Three Rivers Stadium, being built across the Allegheny River, and my dad wanted to bring his sons to the ballpark where he used to go as a kid. We didn’t live in Pittsburgh--Dad got a job in Corning, NY the week before he and mom got married, so we only visited relatives on the occasional weekend.

And ballparks, too, I guess, although this was my first time in a big-league park. But I was a Little Leaguer, with my own mitt, which I brought to the game with me, because I was gonna catch a foul ball!

I knew that was gonna happen, because on TV and movies, whenever dads bring their sons to ballgames, the kid catches the ball, and the dad congratulates him, and hair gets tousled, and a bond of love grows between them, and I sure would like to have one of those with my Dad.

So we got our tickets, and we walked through the grandstands, with all the beer stands and hot dog stands and the popcorn stands and, and we stopped at none of them. Mom had grapes in her purse. And we kept walking, past home plate, past third base, past the cool, covered grandstands, and out into direct sunlight: to the bleachers.

“This is where I sat when I was a kid,” Dad said. “We called it ‘Kiner’s Korner,’ after Ralph Kiner, who hit a lot of balls this way. We’d catch them and use them to play ball ourselves.”

I’m not a direct-sunlight sort of person. I will often get physically ill sitting in it. But I was willing to sit in it, because I was gonna catch a foul ball!

So we sat and watched the game, as much as I could as a nine-year-old with a relatively short attention span.

We did end up getting a thing of popcorn from a vendor, and it was horribly salty and dry and tasted of something that was as close to butter as 60’s-era food chemists could make, which is to say almost nothing like butter. I was grateful for the grapes.

I don’t remember who won or lost. I don’t remember how well or poorly my heroes on the Pirates--Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente--played. I mostly remember one single pitch.

1969 would be Donn Clendenon’s year, baseball-wise. He was a free-swinging first baseman who spent 8 seasons with the Pirates. He hit a lot of home runs. He struck out a lot more. In 1968 he, too, was one of my favorite Pirate players, as much for his home runs as for his name, which was fun to say. It had a lovely rhythm, and in the summer of 1968, when I was in bed well before the sun went down, I would look at his face on my 1968 Topps Baseball card--sneering at the pitcher, waiting for him to hang a slider--and whisper “Donn Clendenon Donn Clendenon Donn Clendenon” until I fell asleep.

If I was a girl, you might think I had a crush on him. But I wasn’t a girl, so shut up.

In 1968, the Pirates had another hard-hitting first baseman in the minor leagues, a power hitter too, more disciplined, and with a better glove, named Al “Scoop” Oliver, so at the end of the season, they left Clendenon unprotected for the upcoming expansion draft.

There were going to be four new major league teams in 1969, and each existing team had to make a certain number of its players available for the new teams to choose from, and my boyfrie--I mean, one of my favorite players--was one of them. The Montreal Expos picked him, and then turned around and traded him to the Houston Astros, who were managed by Harry “the Hat” Walker.

I just love baseball nicknames. As baseball nicknames go, Harry “the Hat” Walker was pretty good. A lot better than Harry “the Racist” Walker, which is what Clendenon said about him as he refused to report to the Astros. He had played under Walker for the Pirates, and said he would retire rather than play for him. By the way if you think that may be an unfair thing to say about the man, consider that Walker’s father and brother--who both played in the bigs--both had the nickname “Dixie.”

Eventually Clendenon was forced to report, and basically stunk up the Astrodome. So much so, that in June he got traded to the Mets, itself an expansion team in its seventh season, who were 73-89 the year before. Clendenon got better and better as the season progressed, and ended up being selected the Most Valuable Player of the Amazing “Miracle” Mets, the improbable World Series Champions of 1969.

But I didn’t know any of that this hot, sunny July day. I knew nothing of hot-stove machinations and trades. I knew nothing of deeply-ingrained racism. All I knew was Donn Clendenon was coming to bat. I don’t know who the pitcher was, or what the pitch count was. I just remember being pissed that one of my heroes was playing for the other team and I had to root against him.

And I remember one pitch--one pitch where he got fooled on and swung too early, and the right-handed slugger pulled a ball towards the left-field bleachers.

Right at me.

“I got it!” I cried, leaping to my feet, as the ball left the bat. I saw the moment. I saw me snagging it, expertly following the ball into my glove, catching it with the netting and then covering it with my right hand--catching it “two handed,” as my dad called it. The right way to catch a fly ball.

I was pretty much an embarrassment to my parents in 1969. I was an embarrassment in ‘68, too. Actually, I had a pretty consistent streak of being “an embarrassing child” to my parents that lasted the entirety of my childhood. So this was my chance. I’d catch the ball, and delight my dad, who’d tousle my hair, and maybe even put an arm around me, proud of the boy who would one day be chasing down fly balls in right field for these very Pittsburgh Pirates when Roberto Clemente retired from the game in 1977, after breaking every single batting record in the books...

I saw all of that as I watched the ball arc towards me. And I realized that the ball was still in the air, still arcing towards me.

And I then realized just how far away from me Donn Clendenon was.

And I then realized how hard he must have hit that ball to get it to move that far.

And I then realized how fast that ball must be moving to get to me.

And I then realized how much it was gonna hurt if it hit me.

And I froze.

The ball hit right in front of me, rattled around a bit, and then bounced out of the bleachers, into foul territory, where Matty Alou, the left fielder for the Pirates, picked it up, and lazily underhanded it right to me.

And I caught it jauntily with my open hand, and smiled and nodded to him. He nodded back, gravely, acknowledging that one day, I would be batting behind him in the order and bring him home with my powerful line drives into the gap, making Pirate fans grateful for the five-tool replacement they found to take Clemente’s place....

No. That’s not what happened.

As the ball reached me, I said “NnnYAUGH!” and closed my mitt before the ball even reached it, and used my right hand to knock it higher into the air, behind me, where the salty popcorn vendor snagged it and ran off down the bleachers.

In baseball parlance: I booted it.

Which meant I also booted my dream of being the son my father always wanted. I looked over at him, dreading the look of scorn and shame I’d see.

Instead, he was laughing. Roaring in amusement. Which in many ways, was worse. But that was what I was for him--entertainment. In time I started figuring out ways to make him laugh that didn’t involve complete humiliation for me, but that was in a short lived future.

The stories we tell ourselves--especially as children--are rarely the whole truth, or even partial truths. And expectations are often premeditated disappointments, which is a clever way of saying shit doesn’t happen the way you think.

Donn Clendenon never played better than he did in 1969. After baseball, he became a lawyer and an author writing about career and his drug addiction. He died of leukemia in 2005, at age 75.

Roberto Clemente died on December 31st 1972, in a plane carrying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaraugua. I never made it past high school baseball. My father died in 1977, he never saw me get past high school.

And the one death that was predicted didn’t happen at the right time: Forbes Field lasted an extra season because nothing ever happens the way it’s planned.

Perceptions change from different positions. I’ve been around baseball enough to know that what Clendenon hit at me on that July day was just a lazy fly ball. I’ve discovered that the stories I told myself about my hero, my father, and myself were nothing like the reality of our situations.

We all have chances to do things. We all have the ability to succeed and fail. The trick, I’ve discovered is to keep those successes and failures in perspective.

And always bring your mitt with you. Just in case.

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