Tom Walker had just completed his first Major League season in 1972, pitching for the Montreal Expos. Now he headed for Puerto Rico, where he would play winter ball and hook up with a baseball immortal, Roberto Clemente.
"Clemente was a player-coach in winter ball and met my dad there," said Neil Walker of the Pirates.
It was an intriguing combination -- a future Hall of Famer whose final hit of the 1972 season was the 3,000th of his career, and a young pitcher, trying to carve out his own career in baseball. Clemente was one of the game's top stars. Walker was an anonymous rookie.
In late December, a massive earthquake struck Managua, Nicaragua. Clemente, who had visited the city three weeks earlier, immediately organized relief flights loaded with supplies. When he learned the first three flights had been intercepted by the corrupt Somoza government, he decided to accompany the next shipment of supplies to make sure they reached the people who needed them. On Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente loaded up a fourth relief flight with the help of some other ballplayers. Tom Walker was one of them.
"A group of them were helping Clemente load the plane on New Year's Eve," Walker said. "Maybe five or 10 of them. They all wanted to go on the flight. But the plane was packed, really full, and Clemente wouldn't let them go. He said, 'Go home. Go enjoy New Year's Eve.'"
The overloaded plane with a history of mechanical problems crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff. Clemente's body was never recovered.
News of the crash rocked the baseball world. Tom Walker was shaken by how close he had come to the tragedy. He would forever remember Clemente and that fateful night in December.
"It was a terrible tragedy," Walker said. "I feel fortunate that dad didn't get on that plane. The memory of Clemente has been a big part of our life."
Tom Walker settled in Pittsburgh, where Clemente is an icon, and raised his family there. Walker was born in 1985 and was a Pirate fan as soon as he discovered baseball. "I've always bled black and gold to a degree," he said.
He was 7 years old in 1992, the last time the Pirates had a winning season. "Oh, yeah, I remember 1992," he said. "I remember Sid Brean running home on one good leg, sliding in and beating us and winning the pennant for the Braves."
That started a losing streak of monumental proportions, a streak that has now stretched over 19 years. The Pirates roster has turned over many times since then with a parade of players and managers unable to reverse the losing trend.
Meanwhile, Walker began his own baseball career. Drafted by the Pirates, he moved steadily through the organization, reaching the Major Leagues as a September callup in 2009. He started 2010 in the Minors, but was called up in May and is part of a young nucleus the Pirates believe will put them on the right track.
He has played just about every position at one time or another before settling in as the everyday second baseman and cleanup hitter. He's been the team's top RBI producer.
"The future looks better for us," Walker said. "We can't worry about what happened before. We can't worry about losing. We grow as a team each day. We're learning how to play. It's a measure of our progress."
On Opening Day of the 2011 season, Walker tagged Ryan Dempster of the Cubs for his first career grand slam. It was only the second time a Pittsburgh player had hit a grand slam on Opening Day.
The only other Pirate to do that was Roberto Clemente.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York..
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.