The Times West Virginian


June 12, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Pirates’ Polanco is a picture-perfect prospect

MORGANTOWN — On Tuesday evening there moved on Twitter a captivating photograph from deep within the bowels of PNC Park — yes, even beautiful structures such as Pittsburgh’s gem of a stadium have inner passages that can be called nothing less than bowels — the kind of photograph that belongs in the Hall of Fame of Baseball Photographs, if there was one.

Walking down the stairs that head from the Pirates’ locker room to the green grass of the field was a silhouette of a ball player, a rookie about to make his major league debut.

No ordinary rookie was this player with the No. 25 uniform, a uniform jersey that would be auctioned off on television during the game for more than $26,000.

Gregory Polanco had arrived in Pittsburgh and now, minutes before his first game, he was walking down the stairway to heaven, his bat in his left hand, a camouflage cap atop his head.

The photo, though, was not just of Polanco, for it captured before him a banner that hangs above the stairway, a banner that read:

“When I put on my uniform I feel I am the proudest man on earth.” — Roberto Clemente

The photograph captured everything there was about the moment … the player who surely — but incorrectly and unwisely — will be labeled “the next Clemente” walking off into his baseball future, the tool of his trade with which he will make his mark at his side.

Awaiting him outside was a crowd of 31,567, the last 10,000 of those tickets gobbled up at the last moment after it was announced that this prodigy would be brought to the big leagues from Indianapolis — actually never leaving Pennsylvania, for his Indianapolis Indians had been playing in Allentown — for this game.

For weeks the cries had gone up demanding his presence, for he was doing wondrous things at the Class AAA level, standing second in batting in the International League while leading the countless other offensive categories.

Now they had answered the outcry from the Pittsburgh fandom, which stretches north to Erie, west into Ohio, east to Harrisburg and south as far as Charleston in our own state, and brought him to town as something of a savior, for surely something was needed.

After reaching the playoffs for the first time since Polanco was in diapers in his native Dominican Republic, the team was once again looking at .500 from the wrong side and seemed to be experiencing almost a nightly injury, the last one taking pitcher Francisco Liriano off the mount with a strained muscle.

Clint Hurdle did nothing to ease Polanco into his big league debut.

Quite the opposite, for there he was early before the game with coach Rick Sofield obtaining tips on how to play the quirky bounces that come off the Clemente wall in right. Not only did he have to play the shadow of the man, but of the 21-foot high wall named for the greatest Pirate outfielder of all time.

It would be, of course, totally unfair to offer comparisons between Polanco and Clemente, even if each is a right-fielder wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates’ uniform and is from Latin America, each blessed with larger-than-life talents.

Clemente was a one-of-a-kind talent, a player with an amazing flair. Nothing he did looked easy, hitting off his front foot, arms flailing at odd angles as he ran, blessed with an arm that very few men on Earth could match.

This is not the type of player that Polanco seems to be. In fact, at first glance, it is easy to mistake him for a young Ken Griffey Jr., long and lithe at 6-feet, 4-inches and 220 pounds. Being left-handed helps with the comparisons and, to be honest, there was a picture in a Pittsburgh newspaper of him finishing his swing and it was, to the memory, almost a reprint of one that was taken of Griffey in his early days.

To be compared to Griffey Jr. and not Clemente is hardly a step down, simply one in a different direction, and if it turns out that Polanco is the reincarnation of Griffey, the Pirates will not throw him back into the talent pool.

But what made the comparison to Griffey so strong was the easy smile, almost playful, much as Griffey had early in his career before fame soured him. One pitch following his first major league hit, Andrew McCutchen hit a home run on which he was off and running, his feet barely touching the ground as he hit high gear.

And shortly after he crossed the plate, playfully hugging McCutchen and giving him a pat on the posterior, you could see that this was a kid who played the game like a kid, who enjoyed the sport and, more important, enjoyed his teammates.

It may not come right away — Clemente batting just .255 in his rookie season and Barry Bonds hitting .223 in his — but it is going to be fun to watch Gregory Polanco grow into star he seems destined to be.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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