DUNEDIN, FLA. - Pablo Cruz saw Roberto Clemente do some amazing things.
The Great One as he was known could throw a strike to home plate from the warning track.
Or make wild dashes into the gap, his hat flying off. And he could hit a little too.
Clemente doubled off Jon Matlack in the fourth inning on Sept. 30, 1972 for his 3,000th hit as the Pirates blanked the New York Mets 5-0 at Three Rivers Stadium in the Game 152 of the 154-game schedule.
Clemente never had another at-bat in the final two games of the regular season. He had four hits as the Pirates were eliminated by the Cincinnati Reds in the deciding game of the best-of-five, National League Championship Series.
Bringing supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve Clemente died in a plane crash at age 37.
Cruz, 65, who now runs the Blue Jays academy in the Dominican Republic, spent 14 seasons in the Pirates minor-league system, including playing the infield for the 1972-73 Sherbrooke Pirates.
His favourite memory of the hall of famer is not from the diamond.
Cruz explained how in the 1960s the Pirates big-league camp was at Fort Myers, while the minor leaguers were in Daytona Beach, four hours away.
“He would make that long drive to see us minor leaguers, he was from Puerto Rico, but he’d come to check on Dominican players like me, all the Latins, American players too,” Cruz said. “Roberto wanted to see if we were eating properly, see if we needed anything.
”He would teach us a lot about the game too.”
In 1969 the Pirates moved to Bradenton, which was still almost a three-hour hike to Daytona.
And now the stage is set for Cruz to explain the most amazing thing he ever saw Clemente do.
“We’re sitting there one night in Daytona, it’s really cold, unusually cold for Florida, everyone is wearing a jacket, some guys a sweater and a jacket,” Cruz recalled.
Clemente meanwhile wore a short-sleeved shirt.
“Someone asked Roberto ‘what are you doing? Aren’t you cold?’ Roberto said ‘I’m practising,’” Cruz said. “We all said practising? Roberto said: ‘We’re opening the season in Pittsburgh in three days, it’s going to be cold ... I’m getting ready for the season.’”
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Cruz drew a paycheque from the Pirates for 36 years. His son, Ismael Cruz, took over this winter from Marco Paddy as the Jays supervisor of Latin American scouting.
When Cruz’s playing career was over he scouted Latin America for the Pirates — long co-leaders with the Los Angeles Dodgers when it came to signing Latins — working for scout Howie Haak.
Cruz was at the Bobby Mattick Complex when he spoke.
You might not know Haak, but think of him as the Pirates’ Mattick, except he was there longer. Haak came with St. Louis Cardinals’ general manager Branch Rickey to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943, scouted Jackie Robinson, and then joined the Pirates at the end of the 1950. He stayed until 1988.
Haak suggested that the Pirates draft Clemente, then 19, for $4,000 after seeing him with the Montreal Royals in 1954, although Clemente had only 155 plate appearances, and winter ball. The Dodgers were trying to hide him from opposing scouts.
Playing second base for the Royals was original Jays manager Roy Hartsfield.
Reasoning if the Dodgers could find Clemente in the Caribbean, why not search there? Haak headed to the islands, despite not being able to speak Spanish. He signed right-hander Al McBean from the Virgin Islands, a 15-game winner in his second year and outfielder Angel Mangual from Cuba.
Catcher Manny Sanguillén, a Haak sign from Panama, and Clemente played in 15 games for the Pirates on their way to the 1971 Series title, with Clemente winning MVP honours.
The next eight Octobers saw the Pirates reach the post-season four times culminating with a win in the 1979 Series. Haak signees included second baseman Rennie Stennett and centre fielder Omar Moreno (Panama), lefty Ramon Hernandez and infielders Frankie Taveras (Puerto Rico) and Mario Mendoza (Mexico).
When Cruz retired as a player after the 1978 season, Haak hired him.
“I’d pick them out and Howie would come in and I’d say ‘look at him, him and him,’” Cruz said. “Howie was like my father.”
Cruz took over Latin America in 1980.
Cruz drafted right-handers José DeLeón, Cecilio Guante and Silvio Martinez, outfielder Orlando Merced, second baseman Jose Lind and catcher Tony Pena.
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One thing Cruz knows is hitting. Working with outfielder Bobby Bonilla in the spring of 1982 he asked him how many homers he hit the year before.
Bonilla replied “zero, didn’t even hit one out in batting practice.”
“He worked until his hands bled and a few days later he hit one out at Eckerd College,” Cruz said.
Bonilla hit 287 homers in the majors.
In 1986, Cruz said he received a phone call from Tony Pena’s wife: “Pablo, my husband is not sleeping, he can’t hit, he’s letting the team down.” Then GM Syd Thrift called and asked Cruz to fly to Houston for three days.
Pena was straightened out in one day following one early morning session at the AstroDome.