There is no question that Roberto Clemente and Barry Bonds
are two of the greatest Pirates of all-time, and I've always found it kind of weird how both players careers with the Pirates ended pretty much exactly the same way almost exactly 20 years apart.
Clemente was one of the most consistent players of his era, winning multiple gold gloves, batting titles and the 1966 NL MVP. However, it wasn't until his magnificent performance that helped lead the Pittsburgh Pirates
to the 1971 World Series title that the world became aware of his greatness.
In 1972, the Pirates were defending champions and found themselves in the NLCS
for the third year in a row and faced the Cincinnati Reds
for the second time in three seasons. The series was extremely tight and hard-fought, and after the teams split the first four games, the Pirates and Reds would play the deciding game 5 on Wednesday, October 11th, 1972, at the old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, and led 3-2 heading into the bottom of the 9th inning. Just three outs away from their second-straight trip to the World Series, the Pirates experienced one of the most depressing sequences of events in team history. Reds catcher Johnny Bench led off the inning by hitting a home run off of reliever Dave Giusti to tie the score at three. Moments later, George Foster was on 3rd base with two-outs and represented the pennant-clinching run for the Reds. The late Bob Moose was in for Giusti, but instead of getting out the the jam, he threw a wild pitch that scored Foster to send Cincinnati to the World Series and the Pirates and their fans into shock and depression.
As for Clemente, at 38, there was no doubt that he was in the twilight of his career, but there wasn't a sense that he was going to retire anytime soon. He had just notched the 3000th hit of his remarkable career in the last regular season game of the '72 season and was expected back the following year.
Unfortunately, on December 31st, 1972, Clemente died in a plane crash while taking relief supplies to Nicaragua, and his remarkable career and admirable life both came to a stunning and tragic end.
Clemente was largely misunderstood for most of his career in Pittsburgh, but in his final years as a player, Pirates fans and the local media began to embrace him, and after his death, Roberto Clemente would become arguably the most iconic sports figure in Pittsburgh history.
Before becoming a controversial home run champion in the later part of his career with the Giants
, Barry Bonds was one of the best all-around players in baseball. While with the Pirates, Bonds won two NL MVP awards and was regarded by many as the best left-fielder in the game, winning three-straight Gold Glove Awards from 1990-1992.
In 1992, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their third-straight National League East title and would meet the Atlanta Braves
in the in the NLCS for the second year in a row.
Unlike '91, the Pirates were underdogs to the Braves and quickly fell behind in the series, 2-0 and then 3-1. After battling back to tie the series at three games a piece, the Pirates and Braves would meet for the deciding game 7 on Wednesday October 14th, 1992, at the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. Just like in '72, the Pirates jumped out to an early lead and entered the bottom of the 9th inning ahead 2-0. With ace Doug Drabek on the mound, it looked as if the Pirates would finally get to the World Series after losing in the NLCS the previous two seasons. Unfortunately, the Pirates would suffer maybe the most heartbreaking loss in sports history. Thanks in large part to a Terry Pendleton double and a botched ground ball by Jose Lind, the Braves had the bases loaded with nobody out. Pirates closer Stan Belinda replaced Drabek, and two gut-wrenching outs later, the Braves were now down 2-1, and had the tying run on 3rd and the pennant-clinching run on 2nd base. Francisco Cabrera, the last guy on the Braves bench, stroked a 2-1 pitch into left field. David Justice scored the tying run, and Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds throw to the plate to send the Braves to their second-straight World series and the Pirates into a two-decade spiral.
Bonds would sign with the Giants following the '92 season and would go on to have one of the best and most controversial careers in Major League Baseball history. Bonds home run numbers began to rise in the latter stages of his career and he would eventually become the all-time leader in both single season and career home runs. Bonds was suspected of using performance enhancing drugs in order to achieve his records and was the subject of a federal investigation for many years. Bonds was eventually convicted for obstruction of justice last spring.
As for Bonds' legacy in Pittsburgh, even though he was one of the best players in the game during his time with the Pirates, the fans never fully embraced Bonds, and he certainly didn't have a great relationship with his teammates or the local media.
Unlike Clemente, Bonds' legacy is that of one of the most vilified former Pittsburgh athletes in history along side the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Neil O'Donnell, and I doubt there will be a statue erected in his honor any time soon.
Clemente and Bonds: Two great careers, two distinctely different legacies in Pittsburgh, but two eerily similar endings to their Pirates careers.
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