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01/03/13 12:40 PM ET
Living legacy: Walker carries spirit of Clemente
Father of Bucs infielder nearly took fateful plane trip that claimed life of legend
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
On Sept. 8, 1972, Tom Walker, a young relief pitcher for the young Montreal Expos, trots in from the Jarry Park bullpen to work the top of the ninth against the Pittsburgh Pirates. A No. 1 Draft choice four years earlier by the Baltimore Orioles, the finesse right-hander retires Gene Clines on a fly to center, gets Vic Davalillo on a grounder to second and begins to work on Al Oliver, while keeping an expectant eye on the on-deck circle. When Oliver pulls a bouncer to first to end a three-up, three-down inning, the on-deck batter starts a slow jog to right field, rather than his characteristic slow walk into the batter's box. The 23-year-old Walker strolls toward his dugout, ironically disappointed that having done his job too well ruined a meeting with immortal greatness. A couple months later, Walker finally got to meet Roberto Clemente. He even shared his uniform: He and another Expos pitching prospect, Balor Moore, were Puerto Rican Winter League teammates of Clemente. The experience, associating with a legend on his home turf, was an incredible one for a youngster still weaving his own big league dreams. Walker wanted to spend as much time as possible in Clemente's aura, whether that meant answering a call to the bullpen or a higher calling. Thus, when Clemente's heart and conscience drew him to earthquake-torn Nicaragua and a plane had to be loaded with relief supplies -- tons of it: food, clothing, medical goods -- Walker rolled up his sleeves. He was only one among numerous ballplayers helping load the plane. But he was the most adamant about also wanting to help unload it -- about going along for the relatively short flight, accompanying Clemente, who was personally delivering the supplies to ensure that they stayed out of the hands of corrupt government forces. It was Dec. 31. New Year's Eve. San Juan is a fabulous party town. In the distance, the bright lights and sounds of revelry already crackled the night sky. "No," Clemente told Walker. "You need to go back and enjoy the evening. Go home. Go enjoy New Year's Eve." So Walker stayed. And stayed alive, when the plane carrying Clemente and four others exploded into flames, disintegrating, soon after takeoff. Tom Walker spent six seasons chasing that big league dream, with modest success. He also pitched for the Angels, the Cardinals and the Tigers. The Florida native married and settled down in Pittsburgh, without ever having pitched for the Pirates, but drawn by something to the area. The Walkers had sons, Matt and Sean, then a daughter, Carrie. Finally, in 1985, another son, Neil, was born. Neil Walker now starts as the hometown team's second baseman, and every time he runs out to his position at PNC Park, his eyes burn through The Clemente Wall in right field. This story is well-known in Western Pennsylvania, ingrained in local legend. But it received unprecedented national exposure through MLB Network's retrospective on the 40th anniversary of Clemente's death, with Tom Walker's recollections a haunting part of the segment. "Forty years later," Walker said on the MLB Network production, "I think of a man that saved my life. 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 for the Pittsburgh Pirates." The second baseman grew up as a huge fan of the team for which he now stars, exponentially raising his posthumous appreciation of The Great One. "It was a terrible tragedy," Neil Walker recalled of Clemente's doomed mercy mission during PNC Park ceremonies on Sept. 30 commemorating his 3,000th hit. "I feel fortunate that Dad didn't get on that plane. The memory of Clemente has been a big part of our life." It is a part that also reinforces baseball's near-mystical quality of linking generations and closing circles. On Opening Day 2011, his first one with the Pirates, who had called him up for good the previous May, Walker hit a grand slam at Chicago's Wrigley Field. The only other Opening Day grand slam in the club's long history was by Clemente, on April 10, 1962, in Forbes Field against the Phillies. One other thing. Tom Walker goes by his middle name, his given first name being Robert. And Clemente's full name was Roberto Clemente Walker.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.