A hero at 8 ... or 38
By Tim Keown
Page 2 columnist

Puberty ends the hero thing. It's just a personal opinion, but a sports hero is something you have as a kid, before you know about free agency and restraining orders and illegal supplements. It's a basic form of idolatry, loving someone for being able to do something you know you'll never be able to do.

Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente's impact off the field was just as big as his play on the diamond.
Because even then, even at 8 or 10 or 12, you know. Somewhere deep inside you, in the unannounced recesses of your sanity, you just know it's never going to happen like that for you.

But enough preaching. The way I see it, the point of the whole hero exercise is to choose someone as a child who can retain those heroic characteristics until long after you've outgrown heroes. In other words, someone you can call your hero -- to complete strangers, if asked -- with your head held high and a proud snap to your voice.

Someone like Roberto Clemente. As a kid growing up in California, I was crazed for every sports team from my native Pittsburgh. The Pirates, the Steelers -- damn, I'd even check out the Pipers in the ABA standings every morning.

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  • Pittsburgh was the infatuation and Clemente the hero. At 8 years old, I walked to the plate in what passed for Little League in my town (Fly League, they called it, and don't ask) rolling my neck every which way. I didn't even have any muscles in there, but I was making sure they were loose. Hey, it worked for Roberto ...

    I stood deep in the batter's box, feet not even shoulder width apart, and went at the ball with the most god-awful hitch you've ever seen on an 8-year-old. Hey, good enough for Roberto ...

    I was a catcher, but once a year I'd ask to play right field, becoming the first 8-, 9- or 10-year-old in history to want to be in right field, even if they didn't let me. Hey, good enough for Roberto ...

    I remember waking up Dec. 31, 1972, and the announcer saying, ".... the airplane crashed heading for Nicaragua with relief supplies." I was 8, so I cried. My father tried to comfort me by saying, "He died helping people."

    By quirk of birthplace, I chose the right hero, one that works at 8 or 38.

    Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at tim.keown@espn3.com.



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