PITTSBURGH - Saturday would have been Roberto Clemente's 78th birthday.
December will mark the 40th anniversary of his death, which means you pretty much have to be over 50 to have any vivid memory of Clemente as a player.
He's become a mystical figure over these years because of the circumstances of his passing. One moment he was here, collecting his 3,000th hit, enjoying the victory lap for his dazzling performance in the 1971 World Series, exhorting teammates to keep their heads up after the disappointing end to the '72 playoffs. Then he vanished.
He never got old, never had issues with his hairline or waistline. He never had the chance to consider sitting behind a table and cashing in on the autograph craze at $100 a pop, $10 extra for inscriptions.
He was never a hanger-on coach, never had the chance to consider a career in the front office. He was simply gone.
The few clips that survive show doubles in the gap, home runs in the World Series, laser-like throws from right field. It's easy to forget that he struck out 1,230 times or that he occasionally heard boos at Forbes Field.
He was one of the all-time greats, but not the greatest. His contemporaries, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays, combined batting average with power and speed. Aaron had 3,016 hits that were not home runs.
Clemente died trying to do a good deed, so people ascribe a saintliness to him that doesn't necessarily fit. Steve Blass' autobiography shows a Clemente who was an integral part of the clubhouse rowdiness.
Any sense of proportion regarding Clemente has evaporated over the years. His life has been shorthanded into a mantle of heroism, often with exaggeration and supposition that distorts who he was.
He could be stingy with autographs and peevish with the press. Yet he was also capable of thoughtfulness alien to most ballplayers. On the last day at Forbes Field, Clemente wrote a personal message on a baseball and had it delivered to public address announcer Art McKennan, whose booming voice was a consistent part of the environment there.
Clemente played with an uncommon flair - basket catches, the nonchalant underhand warm-up tosses between innings, the first-to-third arm-flailing running that always left his helmet somewhere around shortstop.
He thought players deserved more in a system that heavily favored management. Clemente was an early and staunch supporter of the Players Association, which helped the union gain credibility.
When the Pirates were trying to sign John Candelaria after the 1972 draft, they took Clemente to the Candelaria home in Brooklyn, figuring his presence would help seal the deal with a family of Puerto Rican heritage.
But Clemente, in Spanish, advised Candelaria he was worth more than the Pirates were offering.
What would Clemente have thought of a baseball world that included free agency and arbitration? Would he have been interested in managing?
We'll never know. Because on the day after his 78th birthday, Roberto Clemente is 38, always.