A Pirate for Life
By Steve Blass, Erik Sherman
Triumph Books Copyright © 2012 Steve Blass and Erik Sherman
All rights reserved.
They Named a Disease After Me
"Warm up Blass. You're going in the game," pitching coach Mel Wright hollered over to me in the Pirates' bullpen on a typically balmy June night game in Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium.
Entering a ballgame in the fifth inning of a blowout was a strange thing for me, but these were strange days, indeed. Our manager, Bill Virdon, thought that maybe I might start pitching better again with some time out of the bullpen. No time to think, just go out there and pitch. So far, other experiments were not helping. I was inconsistent at best.
But on this particular night, my plight took a horrendous turn. I was no longer just walking guys or hitting batters or getting hit hard. I was throwing the ball in back of hitters and behind their heads. It was just god-awful. My night's pitching line: six walks, three wild pitches, and five hits in 1 1/3 innings pitched. We mercifully got through that game, an 18–3 loss, but for me, it was just a horrific experience.
I was numb on the flight to Cincinnati after the game. We landed, and I went up to my room, dropped off my luggage, then walked the streets of Cincinnati all night thinking, What the hell is this? What is going on? In just a few weeks, I had gone from All-Star pitcher to bad starter to going to the bullpen and pitching badly. I got to thinking, Well, where the hell do I go from here? This bullpen shit ain't working.
I just walked the streets and wandered around. And this wasn't the first time. But this was certainly the bottom of the descent. The abyss.
Less than a year after finishing second in the Cy Young voting and less than two years after finishing off the mighty Baltimore Orioles with my second complete game win of the 1971 World Series, I was lost as a pitcher. Just dangling. Now the doubt was there. What is causing this? Am I going to get out of this? I was starting to feel anxious about going out on the mound. When I first started to struggle with the control, I thought, Well alright, let's work it out.
But now I had anxiety. Now I wasn't sure if I wanted to go out there. I had always lived a life of anticipation. I have always been excited about the next adventure, the next movie, the next ballgame, or the next experience. Now that anticipation, which was always a big part of my life, was being taken away from me.
The anticipation was my energy, my joie de vivre. When I was pitching well, on days I wasn't starting I still looked forward to going to the ballpark to shag some fly balls or fuck around with the guys in the clubhouse. We were all going to have a good time. On days that I did pitch, I had always counted the minutes until I could get out on the mound.
Now, it was different. I might go to have a good time, but it was almost like I was fraudulent. I was entertaining my teammates because I didn't want them to see me changing. So I masked it and tried to be exactly the same, knowing underneath that I wasn't having that much fun. I didn't think I was that funny anymore. I would drive home thinking, Ah, you fuckin' fraud. It was a kind of self-loathing. I thought, Why am I doing it? I'm playing this game. Am I doing it for myself? Am I doing it for my teammates?
I felt the need to be the life of the clubhouse, but I didn't feel great about doing it. It was like being on a train going down a track. I couldn't slow it down. It was out of control. But I was still on the train.
It was a different feeling for me than I had ever experienced before. I don't characterize it as fear, although maybe it was. I was very anxious about going out there when I knew I shouldn't be pitching in major league games. I was embarrassed and humiliated. Those are the worst two things a professional athlete can ever experience. I had hit the absolute bottom. I went out to pitch to an avalanche of doubt.
What a mind-boggling turn of events from the season before. I was very confident in my control in 1972. I had that string of good years starting in 1966. It was a hoot for me. I was having the time of my life. I expected to win. It was fun. I felt, to a degree, that I had mastered my craft. So I went out to the mound every fifth day, and knew I was going to do well. It wasn't going to be there every time out, but it was going to be there most nights. I was going to win a lot of games. I was going to pitch well. And I never had any health issues. That was never lurking in the back of my mind. I was throwing all my pitches the way I wanted to.
Hell, I won 19 games out of 32 starts. I might have won 25, but Bill was using five starters, somewhat of a novelty in the days of the four-man rotation. Bill's predecessor, Danny Murtaugh, felt the same way, believing that if he had five starters to count on, they would be fresher in September. We had no reason to argue with them, because the strategy worked.
Our Pirates ballclub was a very good baseball team. We were coming off a world championship and were pretty much still intact. Bill said it was the best baseball team he had been around, and he was with the Pirates, Yankees, Expos, and Astros as a player, manager, or coach. After a couple of Scotches, I tried to make him admit we might have kicked his 1960 world champion Pirates' ass. But it took a lot of Scotches. He was reluctant to admit that.
There was a brief strike at the beginning of 1972 and, hell, the last thing we wanted was to not get started on time. During the strike, I went home and threw some batting practice to some kids at my old school, Housatonic Regional High. That was so much fun! I felt like a million bucks. I felt like a conquering hero coming back to my high school, pitching off the mound, showing them what I was doing while pitching batting practice to them. But it was still a delay I wasn't really happy about.
One of the best things about the 1972 season was that we did not hope to win — we expected to win. During the 1971 season, we were finding out how good we were. In '72, we knew how good we were. That made a huge difference in how we approached the game. It was probably my most consistent year because I thought I pitched well from beginning to end. It was a wonderful ride, a breeze for me on the baseball field.
It was also a great year off the field. It was the year my wife Karen and I decided to move permanently to Pittsburgh with our two boys, David and Chris. For seven years, I had spent the off-season at our primary residence in Connecticut, and then it was off to spring training in Florida for two months, followed by the six-month regular season in Pittsburgh. Karen and I felt that once both the kids reached school age, making a permanent home in Pittsburgh made sense.
The genesis of the move came when I received an early-morning phone call one day at my room at the Viking Inn in Pittsburgh from our closer Dave Giusti's wife, Ginny. She told me that their friends down the street had been transferred and they were selling their house. I called Karen and told her to come to Pittsburgh and we did a great deal of house hunting. After all was said and done, we told the Giustis over dinner that we were going to take their friends' house. So everything was going so well in '72 that we actually found a house four homes away from Dave and Ginny, who remain our neighbors and dear friends to this day.
By mid-season, I was going to my first All-Star Game. What a great experience that was. We had a bunch of guys who went down to Atlanta, including Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, and Manny Sanguillen. The night before the game, Karen and I had dinner with Roberto and Vera Clemente down in an area of the city called Underground Atlanta. We had never had dinner together before as couples. An "honor" is too strong a word to describe it, but it was really neat to go out and have dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Clemente. That sounds kind of simple, but it was truly a big deal for us. It was also a validation for me of sorts, because being invited out by the Clementes for dinner made the steak "prime" instead of "choice." It made the All-Star experience pretty sweet.
Another great memory about going for the first time was to walk into a clubhouse with a major league All-Star team. I'm walking in and there's Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Billy Williams, and all these great, great players. Walking into that National League All-Star clubhouse was one of the neatest things I had ever experienced. Then, later, to go out in the bullpen and see Ferguson Jenkins and all these other All-Stars like Bob Gibson was surreal. It was like a fantasy land.
Before the game, I sat down by my locker, and Bench came over and said, "Steve, I understand you're pitching in the third inning. What signs do you want to use?"
I said, "Well, Johnny, every time I pitch against you, you seem to know what's coming, so why don't we just wing it?" We both had a good laugh.
When I entered the game in the third inning, I was both nervous and excited. I was throwing the ball all over the place and immediately walked Bill Freehan, the first hitter I faced. Thankfully, the pitcher's spot was next, and Jim Palmer sacrifice bunted Freehan to second. The great Rod Carew then ripped a single to center to score Freehan. I got out of the inning after Bobby Murcer lined a bullet to our first baseman, Lee May, who stepped on first to double up Carew to end the frame. On the walk to the dugout I said, "Whoa! These guys are good!"
After the game, a 4–3 National League victory in 10 innings, I found out that NBC had some technical difficulties and never showed the third inning. So, to this day, a lot of my relatives joke with me that they don't believe that I actually pitched in an All-Star Game.
The 1972 season continued to go very well for the Bucs the rest of the regular season, as we cruised to the National League East division crown by 11 games over the second-place Cubs. I even had a chance to be a 20-game winner. I had 19 wins going into my last start against the Mets at Three Rivers Stadium. But in the very first inning, John Milner hit a line drive right off the tip of my elbow. That scared the hell out of me. When you get hit by a batted ball and get hit on soft tissue, there is going to be bruising, and you are going to miss a lot of time. That happened to me when Joe Torre hit me on the soft tissue slightly below the elbow, bruised it badly, and I missed five weeks. But if you are hit on a bone, like Milner's shot off my elbow, it is either going to break the bone or you will be able to pitch soon after that because there is not the swelling that comes with the soft tissue damage.
I went to the hospital for X-rays, but they showed that it wasn't broken. I was so close to seeing my season end right then and there in a meaningless, playing-out-the-string kind of game just days before the playoffs were to begin. When I did come back to the clubhouse from the hospital, I had trainer Tony Bartirome bandage me up from head to toe like I had been in a train wreck. I waited in the clubhouse until after the game, and the beat writers came in and asked me, "How are you? How did it go at the hospital?"
I just stood there like I had fallen out of an airplane, all bundled, wrapped, and bandaged up with stuff around my head. You know, you have to have a little fun. And I can't help myself. I have to entertain. It's what I do.
As for the shot at what would have been my first and only 20-win season, I probably was not going to get it anyway because when Milner hit me, we were already losing 3–0. I didn't win my 20th, but going into the playoffs you are fueled by the fact that you proved what you are capable of doing.
I didn't miss any time. I would pitch Game 1 of the NLCS six days later against the Cincinnati Reds in Pittsburgh. Going into that series against the Big Red Machine, we didn't just think we would do well; we knew we would because of what we did the previous year. Confidence is great, but it has to be backed up by success, not the reverse. If it isn't backed up, then it is just a word. You've got to have a degree of confidence to be successful, but to really have true confidence you must have succeeded. So I think success comes before confidence, because now you know you can instead of thinking you can. So we felt good because we had won the World Series the year before and thought we could match up favorably with the Reds.
As both a player and a fan of the game, I always enjoyed playing the Reds. Pete Rose said it best, calling the Reds-Pirates games of the 1970s the highest quality brand of baseball he had ever been around. Regardless of what one thinks of Pete Rose, he knows the game. And he doesn't just remember every hit he ever got but probably every pitch he ever saw. Rose and I had battled one another for years by that point.
Years later, when I was broadcasting, I had a wonderful series of interviews called, "Blass' Best." When Rose was managing the Reds, I had him on the show one Saturday afternoon right around home plate at Riverfront Stadium. He was giving a bunch of cliché answers and going through the motions when finally I got to the end and said, "Well, Pete, I want to ask you something to test your memory here," knowing full well he remembered every pitch he ever saw.
I said, "Do you know how many people struck you out three times in one game?"
Rose said, "Two."
And I said, "Yeah, I was one of them."
Rose shot back, "Yeah, but on an NBC Game of the Week, I got four hits off you on four different kinds of pitches." Rose started getting animated, and that's when the interview got great. He had total recall of his career. He was also one of the few players whom I made sure my boys came to see because he played the game the way it was supposed to be played.
Rose and I are from a bygone era. The No. 1 thing on my pet peeve list today is fraternization. I always respected Rose and other opponents, but I never felt like I wanted to have a lot to do with them or make them my best friends. I was trying to beat them. Friendships and relationships were for later on.
I went out to pitch Game 1, and the second batter I faced was Joe Morgan. I had two fastballs in my repertoire, a sinking fastball and a riding fastball. I threw Morgan a sinking fastball down and away, and he turned it back around and hit a home run to right-center. After he pulled my fastball like that I said to myself, Oh shit. Is this what they're going to do with my fastball today? So for the next seven-plus innings, they probably saw about five fastballs. What they mostly saw the rest of the way from me was a variety of sliders and slop-shit, change-ups and curveballs, to the point where Rose was hollering out of their dugout, "Eat a fucking steak. Throw the ball like a man." That game was a good example of my ability to adapt to a good fastball-hitting team. I wound up going eight and a third innings and winning 5–1. That Morgan home run was the only run they got off me.
The most valuable lesson I learned about pitching in the postseason was in Game 1 of the 1971 NLCS against the San Francisco Giants. I had a good year and we made it to the playoffs, but I had not pitched at all in the playoffs in 1970 and had no postseason pitching experience. But in the 1971 NLCS, I started the first game. I thought I had to be better than I was in the regular season because it was postseason, but that was a trap, as I tried to do things I wasn't capable of doing. The Giants just kicked my ass all over the field in both starts that I had, so in the World Series I went back to being myself and pitched well, winning both games.
Going into the '72 playoffs, I told myself, Well, alright, you learned your lesson in the '71 NLCS. Don't try to be Superman, because that's not your style of pitching. So I prepared like I did in the regular season and tried not to do too much. Plus, I had pitched a lot against the Reds. They were a great fastball-hitting team. I knew what they were capable of doing and I knew what I was capable of doing, so the preparation wasn't any different because of the lesson I had learned in '71. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Pirate for Life by Steve Blass, Erik Sherman. Copyright © 2012 Steve Blass and Erik Sherman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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