With the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the postseason for the first time since 1992 (or haven’t you heard?), we’ve enjoyed some compelling storylines about the team — from MVP candidate center fielder Andrew McCutchen to local boy second baseman Neil Walker to back from the dead closer Jason Grilli. And having the Pirates back in the national spotlight also provided a great opportunity to talk about the great Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ Hall of Fame right fielder who died tragically in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 while on a relief mission delivering supplies to Nicaragua.
This past weekend, MLB Network aired a compelling feature on a special relationship between Pittsburgh native second baseman Neil Walker — who batted .251/.339/.418 with 16 home runs and 53 RBI (and 3.9 B-Ref WAR) — and Clemente. Walker’s father Tom was a major league pitcher for six seasons (with the Expos, Cardinals, Tigers and Angels), and played winter ball in Puerto Rico with Clemente in 1972. Neil’s father had wanted to accompany Clemente on the relief mission but Clemente told him to return to San Juan to celebrate New Year’s Eve. It was a simple gesture that proved to be a significant twist of fate that saved not only Tom Walker’s life but preserved a baseball legacy in Pittsburgh.
Though it’s a story well known in Western Pennsylvania, details of the family connection and Clemente’s life-saving gesture did not come to light nationally until 2012, on the 40th anniversary of Clemente’s death in an MLB Network retrospective.
“Forty years later I think of a man that probably saved my life,” Tom Walker recalled. “[Clemente] said no, go back and enjoy the evening. And I can't help but think about that now. I've had four wonderful children, and it turns out that one of them is the second baseman now for the Pittsburgh Pirates."
It’s a story worth sharing again. Take the three minutes and 38 seconds to watch the feature and then watch Neil Walker at second base during today’s NLDS Game 4. And when the camera pans over the 21-foot high Clemente Wall bearing the number 21 in right field at PNC Park, know that it has extra special significance for the team's second baseman and the entire Walker family. Well done, MLB Network.