Saturday, February 2, 2013

Steve Blass

OK, most of you guys know Steve Blass as the usually lovable wise cracker on the Root Sports broadcast team. But older fans recall the time in the Pirates' heyday when Blass was one of the better hurlers in the NL, a workhorse righty who notched 15 win seasons four times in his career.

Blass was born in Canaan, Connecticut. He was an All-State hoopster as a preppie, but with five no-hitters in his last two Housatonic High seasons, baseball was his calling card.

He was a hard core Indians fan, but signed out of school with the Pirates, which outbid the Tribe by offering a $4,000 bonus and immediate placement in the minors. It surely helped that Ed Kirby, his high school coach, was a part-time Bucco scout feeding regional evaluator Bob Whalen, who was credited with signing him. So at the age of eighteen, he was off to Kingsport of the Appalachian League, a Low Class D club, about as inauspicious a beginning as possible.

Blass played for six years with six different minor league stops before joining the Pirates full-time, crediting the club's roving pitching instructor and later four time Pittsburgh pitching coach Don Osborne for helping him get over the hump and learn to pitch rather than throw. He took his major league bow in 1964, outdueling Dodger Don Drysdale for a 4-2 complete game win in his first start. He spent 2005 at Class AAA Columbus in the International League and joined the team permanently the following season.

The righty broke camp with the Bucs in 1966. He wasn't overpowering, but used a 90 MPH fastball and a sharp slider that he tossed even when he was behind in the count, both delivered with pinpoint command. Blass ended his first full season with an 11-7/3.87 line as the Pirates finished in third place with a 92-70 record, three games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1967, his slash was 6-8/3.55, but his breakout year was just around the bend.

In 1968, Blass became the team ace. He put up an 18-6/ 2.12 with a nine game winning streak, threw three straight shutouts (he finished the year with seven) in September and at one point won nine straight starts. He earned a spot on the NL All-Star team and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

He couldn't match that year during the next two seasons, becoming more of a inning eater than ace in 1969-70, going 26-22 with a 4.00 ERA.

But in 1971, Blass was back. He went 15-8/2.85, tying Bob Gibson for the NL lead in shutouts with five. But it was in the World Series that he would shine. After a couple of pretty poor starts against the Giants in the NLCS, he found his groove against the Orioles on baseball's biggest stage.

Blass pitched two complete game wins, allowing only seven hits and two runs in 18 innings, including a complete game, 2-1 four hit victory in Game #7 over Mike Cuellar. That match started off poorly, but in one of Earl Weaver's rare psychological backfires, the O's manager started a first inning brouhaha that allowed Blass to settle down. "I thank Earl every time I see him. In the first inning I was all over the place until Earl came out and it calmed me down with his nonsense," Blass recalled. The game ended with one of Pittsburgh sport's iconic photos of Blass leaping into Manny Sanguillen's outstretched arms.

He finished second in the voting for World Series MVP behind teammate Roberto Clemente. "Clemente was great all right, but if it hadn't been for Mr. Blass, we might be popping the corks right now!" Earl Weaver famously said.

Blass followed with a 19-8/2.49 effort in 1972, finishing as runner up to Lefty Carlton, who had a season for the ages, in the Cy Young vote. The Pirates lost to the Cincinnati Reds during the NLCS, but Blass went 1-0 with a 1.72 ERA during the run to repeat.

In the span from 1978-82, he went 78-44, and worked between 196-2/3 to 249 IP. Blass put up a WAR of 16.4 over that period, and at age 31 looked primed for several more strong seasons. But as we all know, baseball is a funny game.

Suddenly, he couldn't find the plate. We're not talking just wild, but missing the broad side of the barn stuff. His ERA soared to 9.85 and he walked 84 batters in 88-2/3 IP. Except for a brief comeback try in 1974, his career was over.

Blass tried everything from psychotherapy to transcendental meditation, joined by supportive teammates Dave Guisti, Bruce Kison and Willie Stargell. It was a mind game that he couldn't solve; his bullpens went smoothly, but in the heat of the game, it fell apart. Maybe his genes finally kicked in; his dad Bob was a local semi-pro pitcher of some renown, but a noted wild child, even tossing one pitch a over the backstop.

It's not the way he'd like to be remembered, but his name is forever associated with "Steve Blass disease," mentioned whenever a player can't make a routine pitch or throw. Its victims over the years have included Rick Ankiel, Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, Dontrelle Willis and C Mike Vanderjagt, who couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher.

Blass retired from baseball in March 1975, and two months later writer Roger Angell chronicled Blass's woes in a famous essay in The New Yorker that was titled "Gone for Good," and is included in his baseball anthology "Once More Around the Park" that was released in 1991. In a 10 year career, Blass went 103–76/3.63 with 1597 innings MLB IP under his belt.

Steve stayed in the area (he's lived in Upper St. Clair for decades), selling rings and suds - we recall him as a beer rep in the seventies - and stayed active with the Pirate alumni group. He returned to baseball in 1983, when he joined the Pirates' TV and radio broadcast team in as a part-time color guy, becoming full-time in 1986. Since 2005, Blass has only announced home games so he could spend more time with his family; he'll celebrate his 50th anniversary with wife and high school sweetheart Karen Lamb this October. (His bro-in-law, John Lamb, was a teammate as an up-and-down reliever with the Bucs in the early seventies).

He's been a visible part of the Pirate scene since, popping up at team events, promotional visits and ribbon-cuttings beside Root Sport outings. And the home time has given him an opportunity to hone his second love, golf - he even sank two holes-in-one in a span of 11 holes during the team's 2009 alumni golf outing. From a kid that loved the Indians, he's come a long way; now he bleeds Bucco black and gold.

His 2012 autobiography, "A Pirate for Life," cowritten with Erik Sherman, looks at his Pirate days and exorcises some ghosts.

“Played in an All-Star Game, a World Series, played with three Hall of Famers – Maz, Clemente and Stargell. I mean this is fairy tale stuff,” said Blass. “The Pirates, when I was 18, gave me a chance to live that dream and I’m still living it, so they have my loyalty forever...Out of a fairy tale life, I had two very difficult years, but on each side of that it’s been absolutely terrific.”

Kipling surely had Steve Blass in mind when he wrote "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same..."

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