Atlanta Braves Morning Chop: the PNC wall and what could have been

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 16: A general view from the field on Roberto Clemente Day before the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park on September 16, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 16: A general view from the field on Roberto Clemente Day before the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park on September 16, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /
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How the Braves won a game on Wednesday after the Dodgers made a franchise-changing mistake… over 60 years ago.

The Atlanta Braves won a game on Wednesday evening that might have turned on the desire of one team’s effort to memorialize one of their greatest players within the very construction of their stadium. Meanwhile, about 250 miles away, a conventional architectural choice also may have positively impacted the Braves.

9th inning. Pittsburgh. PNC Park. What you need to know here is that PNC park was built partly as a way to honor Roberto Clemente. He roamed right field for 18 seasons in Pittsburgh and he wore #21 on his back for most of his time there.

Consequently, PNC Park was built with a 21-foot high wall whose height is offset by the 320 foot distance to the RF corner. I believe it to be that tallest wall in the majors in right field, and second only to Fenway’s 37.2 foot green monster overall.

That wall that certainly came into play during the 9th inning on Wednesday night.

The Scene Unfolded

With Jonny Venters pitching and nursing a 2-1 lead, the first two batters went quickly. But then Gregory Polanco scalded a line drive shot that honestly would have been a home run in every major league park… except PNC.

At PNC, Polanco missed the seats by what appeared to be less than a foot. That nearly tied the game, which could have changed a lot – not only the outcome of this game, but the plans in place for Braves’ bullpen arms as they are diligently working to manage game use during this grueling stretch of games with minimal time off.

It was, instead, a double.  However, the next batter was erased on a comebacker and the Braves won the game.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Ryan Zimmerman hit a bottom-of-the-9th moonshot featuring a more conventional arc. However, this blast was close enough to the top of the 12-foot wall in Nationals Park that a umpire review was called upon to verify that it indeed had been high enough to leave the yard.

That home run? It beat the Phillies, knocking them back to 3 games behind in the standings.

Change the architecture? Reverse the venues? It is not unreasonable to think that the fortunes of both these teams competing for a division championship might have been reversed that night as well.

As it happens, the Dodgers should have had Clemente… though the Braves themselves could have had him.

What Could Have Been

History tells us that the Braves reported made the biggest offer at the time he signed (1954) at something in the $25,000 to $35,000 range. This was just a year after the team moved to Milwaukee from Boston.

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But Clemente – as a free agent teen – reportedly preferred to play in New York where he could find a better Puerto Rican community. He opted for the (Brooklyn) Dodgers.

Due to MLB rules at the time, the Dodgers’ $10,000 bonus meant that they had to put Clemente in the majors to avoid a Rule 5 Draft situation, yet a year of seasoning in the minors was deemed necessary. Brooklyn tried to ‘hide’ Clemente by not playing him (how this got him ready for the majors is unclear), but the ploy didn’t work: the Pirates had the 1st pick and immediately nabbed Clemente.

Thus began a career that ultimately led to the building of a wall that actually cost the Pirates a shot at a win on Wednesday night.  Of course, it was also the Pirates who changed his number from 13 to 21 during the 1955 season… the latter being the iconic number he kept for the rest of his career.  That added 8 feet to the wall.

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Footnote: on June 12, 1952 the Braves spent $10,000 to purchase the contract of Henry Aaron from the Indianapolis Clowns. Can you imagine both Roberto Clemente and Aaron roaming the same outfield for close to 20 years?