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Remembering Steve Blass

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Much has been said and written about Pirates legend Steve Blass over the last few days, as the beloved pitcher-turned-broadcaster-turned-ambassador winds up his second Bucco career and transitions into the next.

Scores of tributes have rolled in from far and near from those who’ve grown up listening to Blass on Pirates broadcasts, those who played with and against him and those who can recall watching him reach the pinnacle of baseball success – and then, without warning, tumble quickly and violently off that mountaintop.

I fall in the last camp, as I came to baseball about the same time Blass was taking his final step up the minor league ladder – from Asheville in the South Atlantic League to Pittsburgh’s Triple-A team in the International League, the Columbus Jets, in 1963.

The right-hander reached the big leagues for the first time in 1964, putting together a 5-8 record with a 4.04 ERA in 24 games, 13 of which he started. He went back to Columbus in 1965 and made the jump to the Show for keeps in 1966, when he went 11-7 with a 3.87 ERA in 34 appearances.

By 1968, Blass established himself as one of the National League’s most reliable starters. In that so-called Year of the Pitcher – a year when Bob Gibson led the majors with a microscopic 1.12 ERA and somehow lost nine games and Denny McLain won a whopping 31 games – Blass put together an 18-6 mark with a 2.12 ERA in 33 appearances.

During a five-year stretch starting with that ’68 season, Blass won 78 games and lost 44, and he completed 50 of his 159 starts.

The numbers didn’t do him justice, though. While Roberto Clemente justifiably won the MVP award for his 1-A performance in the 1971 World Series triumph over Baltimore, Blass was certainly no worse than 1-B, pitching the Pirates to a had-to-have-it Game 3 victory – a complete-game three-hitter in a 5-1 win -- and then coming back five days later and shutting down the Birds in a four-hit route-going performance that captured the Series title.

Blass was positively beaming in the clubhouse after the game while Commissioner Bowie Kuhn presented the Series trophy to Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh. When Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince asked Blass how he was feeling, he was all raw emotion.

“I don’t know what to say – this is the biggest thrill that could ever happen,” he told Prince. “I don’t believe it – from a skinny kid from Falls Village, Connecticut. … How many people have this kind of an opportunity?”

He followed that up with an outstanding 19-8 mark with a 2.49 ERA in 1972, again helping the Pirates to the postseason, where their season ended on a wild pitch by Bucco reliever Bob Moose in the ninth inning of a Game 5 NLCS loss to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.

And then – suddenly – it was gone. The great Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve, and Blass, for some reason, could no longer throw strikes.

His first month of the 1973 season included four starts in which he pitched a total of 20 1/3 innings and yielded 19 earned runs and 14 walks – and three hit batsmen. And that was arguably his best month of the season. In May, he continued to struggle but in June it got downright ugly. He lasted just 1 2/3 innings in a loss to the Giants on June 6, a game in which he gave up four earned runs and five hits while walking three. A week later, he surrendered seven earned runs, five hits and six walks while recording just four outs in a relief outing against Atlanta.

Fans were dumbfounded. So were the writers.

“Blass’ performance raised grave doubts as to when he will ever get it back together again,” wrote Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Press after that game.

On June 22, the misery continued – five earned runs, seven hits and two walks in 1 2/3 innings of a start against the Mets.

He finished that season with a 3-9 record and a bewildering 9.85 ERA in 88 2/3 innings. In his final start – matched up against Mets’ star right-hander Tom Seaver – Blass never made it out of the first inning, giving up four earned runs and four hits in two-thirds of an inning.

Yet even then, Blass tried to remain optimistic. “I had good stuff,” he said afterward, “but I made two bad pitches. This wasn’t one of those games that I haven’t been able to get the ball over the plate. I’m to the point now where I know I can throw strikes. I’m confident I can do that. I’m ready to make pitches and set batters up.”

But it wouldn’t happen. That start against the Mets would be Blass’ next-to-last appearance in a big league game; the final one came the following April, in the Pirates’ 10th game of the 1974 season. Blass worked five innings of an 18-9 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field, yielding five earned runs, five hits and seven walks in five innings.

What happened? That was a question on the minds of thousands of loyal Pirates fans during that 1973 season and then in ’74 when he struggled through a 2-8 record with the Pirates’ Charleston club in the International League. For today’s fans, imagine if Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw woke up tomorrow and could not throw a strike. And within a year, their careers were over. That’s how stunning it was. Theories – and rumors – flew like home run balls on a windy day at Wrigley Field. Some theorized that the trauma of losing his close friend – Clemente – in the tragic plane crash had zapped Blass’ ability to throw strikes. Others had their own guesses.

But through it all, Blass remained as upright and as solid as ever. He put that misery behind him, regrouped and carved out a second – and some would say even more successful – career in the broadcast booth. Career and life decisions had me three time zones away during much of Blass’ broadcasting stint, but I’ve had the opportunity to listen to him these last 14 years and the pleasure has been all mine. While living in Northern California, I had the good fortune to hear Hall of Fame or Hall of Fame-worthy broadcasters such as Lon Simmons, Bill King, Hank Greenwald, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow, but as far as analysis and story-telling, Blass ranked right up there. He knew so much about the game, but never talked down to his listeners. In fact, he never even talked at them – he talked with them.

My personal interactions with Blass were brief but meaningful. When I contemplated writing a biography of another Pirates legend – Willie Stargell – in 2006, the late Sally O’Leary – yes, another Pirates legend in her own way – put me in touch with Blass. I just wanted to know whether he thought Willie was a worthy subject. Whether he was genuine. Because you never know what people are like when the cameras aren’t rolling.

Blass couldn’t have been more accommodating. He gave me all the time I needed – and it was his word that convinced me to pursue the project. Then, three years later while doing the real research, I contacted Blass again to get his take on Stargell as a person and a player. The five pages of single-spaced notes remain one of my favorite interviews in 30-plus years in journalism. I felt like I was talking to an old friend, and he didn’t know me from Adam.

As I write this, Blass is only minutes away from launching into his final official broadcast with the Pirates – and wrapping up a 60-year career with the franchise. But as many have said over the weekend, he’s not going away. As a Pirates ambassador, he’ll be around the club and the ballpark. And perhaps he’ll be persuaded to visit the booth from time to time to share his observations or tell yet another a tale from back in the day. But there will be countless innings in future Pirates seasons when Blass’ voice won’t be heard, as it has been for so many years and so many games.

And it won’t be the same without him.