The 12-year-old had hit home runs before, with his first having been so memorable, in the way it smashed the back windshield of a truck parked beyond the left-field fence. But the home run that he hit in San Juan, well, this one would really stick with him.
He had been climbing up the levels of competition, playing against better and older kids, and in order to play in the San Juan, Puerto Rico, tournament, he had to make one of the first significant journeys of his life. And the fact that the tournament was named for Roberto Clemente, the longtime Pittsburgh Pirates star, really meant a lot to him. The 12-year-old already had a sense of how much Clemente had meant to others -- not only for the way he played baseball, but for how giving he was and how much he cared, which is why he was on the relief plane that crashed on New Year's Eve in 1972.
One of Clemente's closest friends had been Manny Sanguillen, the catcher with the Pirates who was 28 years old at the time Clemente died. Biographers have detailed how in the aftermath of the accident that would take Clemente's life, Sanguillen had gone into the waters where the plane had gone down and looked for signs of his friend. When he saw sharks, Sanguillen was deeply saddened.
It made sense that Sanguillen would be at the Clemente baseball tournament in 1999 to see the 12-year-old hit the home run, and Sanguillen reacted the way he always does -- with loud joy. He chortled happily about the home run, and mentioned to the 12-year-old that the pitcher would never throw him another fastball. Nope, Sanguillen said, from then on, the 12-year-old would see nothing but curveballs, words that the kid would long remember.
Years later, a young man walked up to Sanguillen and reminded the former catcher of that tournament in San Juan, and how he had hit a home run and how Sanguillen had joked about how he would see nothing but curveballs thereafter. Sanguillen didn't remember that moment, specifically, and he didn't recall the 12-year-old playing in the Roberto Clemente tournament. But by then, Sanguillen -- a beloved member of the Pirates' family -- was well aware of the young man.
His name is Andrew McCutchen.
The Pirates center fielder told this story Saturday in his hometown of Fort Meade, Fla., a town built on the backs of hard-working phosphorous miners. McCutchen hosted an event for kids at the set of fields he had played on as a kid, off the corner of 9th Street Northeast and Edgewood. In 2011, the first year of the event (named Raising The Standards) about 75 youngsters had signed up, and this year, that number climbed to just under 200. McCutchen brought along two of his Pirates teammates, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, who went from field to field to work with kids whose ages ranged from 5 to perhaps 15.
McCutchen moved from group to group, talking about different fundamentals, about how to pursue a base hit, about how to break down your stride as you approach the ball, using choppy steps. He talked about how to catch a fly ball using two hands without obstructing your view.
As McCutchen watched, a boy of about 12 years old launched a throw that soared over the head of the coach, and it was easy to see in the face of the child that in this moment -- making that throw in front of the town's most famous son -- he was deeply upset. The boy ran with his head down to the back of the line, and McCutchen followed.
"Hey, that's OK -- you've got a strong arm," McCutchen said. The boy looked up. "That happened to me in a game," said McCutchen, and he told the story of how he had charged a ball and uncorked a throw so high that it had sailed over everybody. "And I had 40,000 people booing me." Then McCutchen mimicked the crowd's reaction -- "BOOOOOOO" -- and the kids within earshot laughed, including the one who made the throw.
"It's OK," McCutchen said again, and by the end of the morning, he had told the players about botching a fly ball, about overrunning a hit and seemingly every other mistake he has made on a baseball field.
As the event came to a close, McCutchen sat at a table behind home plate under the warm Florida sun and signed every item handed to him from a long line that had extended into the left field corner at the outset.
McCutchen knows baseball history well, has heard a lot about Clemente and has thought a lot about Clemente's legacy in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. When people speak about Clemente and Stan Musial, McCutchen noted, they don't really talk so much about what great ballplayers they were. What everybody talks about, McCutchen said, is what great people Clemente and Musial were, and how they impacted others.
McCutchen grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr., admiring his style and how he played, and because of Griffey, he wore No. 24 as he grew up. When he was called up to the big leagues, No. 24 wasn't really available; teammate Delwyn Young had first dibs on it.
McCutchen got No. 22, and he liked that, too. It felt good to wear the number that followed No. 21, the number worn by Clemente.
Moves, deals and decisions
• Defense is key for the Coloardo Rockies this year.
• This is interesting: Hawk Harrelson says a meeting he had with Steve Stone and others will make the chemistry between the two broadcasters better, writes Darryl van Schouwen.
• There has been a change in the Tampa Bay Rays' broadcast team.
• Just saw this today, from Dan Connolly. The quarterback's brother is sticking to baseball.
• Super Bowl pick: San Francisco, 24-14.
And today will be better than yesterday.