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Matlack reflects on giving up Clemente's 3,000th hit

Former Mets pitcher recalls historic day as 40th anniversary approaches

Special to
Jon Matlack, a rookie Mets southpaw, knew the instant the 0-1 curveball left his finger tips that he'd made a mistake.

It wasn't going to catch the outside corner of the plate and with the count even, he'd be forced to challenge one of the greatest hitters the game has ever known.

Then bad went to unbelievable as the ball took off for the left-field gap, hopped to the wall and moments later the Three Rivers Stadium crowd was on its feet cheering as Roberto Clemente stood at second base, doffed his helmet and the scoreboard congratulated him for becoming the 11th player in big league history to join the prestigious 3,000-hit club.

"I'm mad because it's not going to be a strike and he got a double," said Matlack, recalling the historic moment 40 years ago, on Sept. 30, 1972. "I had been told, if you make a quality pitch on the outside part of the plate, he'd let those go. But don't miss by much."

The ball was close enough that Clemente, leading off the bottom of the fourth in a scoreless game, was able to inflict his lethal swing and ignite a three-run rally as the Bucs went on to win, 5-0. "He attacked the zone," Matlack said. "His body movement was separate from his hands. He kept his hands back. He was strong enough that he could react later and differently than most hitters."

In the first inning, Matlack had managed to strike "The Great One" out. This time, the master took the young hurler to school.

"I was just a rookie trying to win another ballgame," Matlack said. "I had no idea this guy was trying to reach a milestone. As a pitcher, I tried to put my team in a position to win every day I went out there."

As fate would have it, Clemente's double turned out to be the last regular-season hit of his illustrious career. Three months later, on New Year's Eve, he was killed while flying a relief mission from his native Puerto Rico to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua.

Matlack says he didn't realize until some time later the he'd been the last pitcher to face Clemente in a regular-season game. Pittsburgh coasted to an NL East flag, winning the division by 11 games over Chicago, but lost the National League Championship Series, in five games, to Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine."

"What a tragedy and what a loss to mankind," Matlack remembers thinking, when news reached him of Clemente's death. "He was a great athlete and a great person as well."

That early autumn afternoon, before a sparse Pittsburgh crowd of 13,117, has linked them forever. Today, young Latin players are given English lessons when they first come to the U.S., a benefit Clemente wasn't afforded after signing his first pro contract. One of the books many players read is about Clemente.

Matlack is now Minor League pitching coordinator for the Houston Astros. "This spring I had guys come into the coach's room and say, 'You're the one. You're the one who gave up Clemente's 3,000th hit.' They had just gotten done reading about it," he said. As a young Mets prospect, Matlack spent the winter of 1971-72 playing in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "Roberto had some affection for that club and he invited all eight American players to his house," he said. "I thought that was pretty classy on his part. He was very personable, showed us his trophy room and memorabilia and spent a lot of time talking about hitting."

At one point, Clemente picked up an oversized souvenir bat."When he was finished I thought, that's an awful big bat," Matlack said. "I could barely pick the thing up. He was whipping it around like a toothpick."

Apparently, Pirates teammate Willie Stargell had hand-picked a heavier bat for Clemente to use in pursuit of his 3,000th hit. After he'd made history, Clemente played one more inning in the field before leaving the game. Willie Mays, who had been traded from San Francisco to the Mets earlier that season, went over to offer his congratulations. The two had great mutual respect and admiration for one another.

Matlack, despite losing the game, finished the 1972 season with an impressive 15-10 record (2.32 ERA) to easily win that year's NL Rookie of the Year Award over Giants catcher Dave Rader.

For Clemente, the National Baseball Hall of Fame waived its mandatory five-year waiting period for election, and he was inducted the next summer. "I remember hearing about Roberto before I got the pleasure to play against him," Matlack said. "He certainly lived up to all the billing you heard about. Even at 38, it was like 'Wow!' He went around the bases like he was 21.

"He played the game the way it ought to be played. He played hard, took the extra base, made tremendous off-balance throws. He was the consummate competitor."

Paul Post is a contributor to