FILLING BIG SHOES
In a recent game at Three Rivers Stadium, Pirate rightfielder Orlando Merced caught a fly ball, wheeled, fired a strike to the plate and nailed Rocky base runner Andres Galarraga, evoking memories of another Pittsburgh rightfielder. Roberto Clemente, of course.
"Oh, big difference in arms," a reverent Merced said after the game. "Gigantic difference in ability."
He's right. There is no comparison between Merced and the great Clemente, who died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, but there are plenty of connections: Merced grew up across the street from the Clemente family, in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico; he plays the same position in the same ballpark that his idol did: and through Sunday he had a Clemente-like batting average of .355, second in the National League to Barry Bonds's .365.
"I remember the first time I played rightfield here [in 1990], I got goose bumps all over my body," Merced says. "I had tears in my eyes. I looked toward the sky and thought. What have I done to deserve this?"
Merced, 26, was just six years old when Clemente died, so he remembers only the legacy his hero left behind. "Growing up, every time I'd go in [the Clemente] basement and see his trophies—sometimes two or three times a day—it always seemed like the first time." Merced says. "I would ask Roberto Jr. [the oldest of Clemente's three sons] about the way he was, what he used to do. I learned baseball from hearing about Roberto Clemente."
Unlike Clemente, Merced wasn't a hot prospect coming out of high school, in '84. He didn't play baseball the year after he graduated. But in February 1985 Clemente's widow. Vera, and his middle son, Luis, who was about to sign with Pittsburgh, arranged a tryout for Merced with the Pirates in San Juan. When he hit line drive after line drive at the tryout. Merced landed a contract with Pittsburgh. "I owe a lot to the Clemente family," he says.
Merced got 24 at bats with the Pirates ill 1990. The following season he played in 120 games (mostly at first base), batted .275 with 10 home runs and finished second to Astro first baseman Jell Bagwell in the vote for National League Rookie of the Year. Merced's average dropped to .247 last season, but this year he has been more aggressive at the plate.
Through Sunday, Merced was second among the Pirates with 32 RBIs and led them with 32 walks (no Caribbean-born player has ever walked 90 times in a major league season).
There's an outside chance Merced will make it to the All-Star Game next month, but it's the 1994 midsummer classic at Three Rivers that he is pointing toward. On that day a statue of Clemente is scheduled to be unveiled at the stadium. It's a project in which Merced has a deep interest, and to raise money for it, he recently sent letters to major leaguers asking for donations. "I'll do anything I can to help," says Merced. "Roberto's an idol to a lot of people. He created a dream for me."