Celebrating his 60th Season with the Pirates, Steve Blass Shares his Story in his Final Season
By Danny Torres
PITTSBURGH – As this jovial 77-year-old World Series champion pitcher and nostalgic commentator for the Pittsburgh Pirates sat down for an exclusive interview on what is his final season in the broadcast booth, I was in the presence of someone who truly loved arriving to the ballpark every single day. He would be the first to tell you that after all the years in the television booth, he still might not know all the intricacies of broadcasting but without question he can still tell a fascinating story.
According to Blass that’s exactly what baseball is – sharing a particular narrative to the viewers and listeners who can enjoy his bygone years with the Buccos from the historic Forbes Field, the multi-purpose Three Rivers Stadium, and now stunning PNC Park.
Prior to our casual conversation in the clubhouse video room, Blass had this to say:
“I’m 77 years old. People have said to me your win-loss record is 103-76. I reply, ‘Actually my win-loss record is 75-2. I’ve had 75 great years and two were a struggle that I learned from.’”
And after we concluded our interview, I can honestly say this – There are three Baseball Hall of Famers who impacted his phenomenal life: Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski. But there are also two individuals who nurtured his life during those formative years of his career: his beloved father and his high school coach. And then of course there is the one person who has cared and loved this former Pirates pitcher for over 50 years: his lovely wife.
And like the iconic title of this 1946 holiday movie classic we are all so familiar with, I can say unequivocally these words: Steve Blass has truly had a wonderful life.
Sixty years, Steve Blass…what immediately comes to your mind?
What a great time I’ve had. What great people I’ve met and what a great experience it’s been in the world of baseball. It’s been a part of my life. It shaped me, educated me and taught me a lot about people. I’ve been lucky enough to be around some good people that helped me go from a ballplayer to a major leaguer.
You mentioned good people. Who were those people who have been instrumental?
There have been so many but firstly, I played Little League baseball for my Dad and that was great. My high school coach Ed Kirby who sent three guys to the big leagues out of our little high school in Connecticut. Bob Whalen, a scout for the Pirates who actually signed me. My high school coach with my scout prepared me in high school because they wanted me to be tested. They prepared me for the ups and downs. Don Osborne was a minor league pitching coach who was elevated to the Pirates when I was arriving. The teammates I had such as Bob Friend who was my first roommate, Vernon Law, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, Smoky Burgess and all those guys. They helped me from being a ballplayer to becoming a major leaguer. You don’t forget that stuff. I have my beautiful wife for 53 years, children, family and so many people in my life. It’s been a charmed life. My only regret is if only I could have pitched more years.
I wanted to ask about three seasons: 1971, 1972, and finally the 1974 season which would be your final year. How would you best describe those periods in your baseball career?
1971 is a charmed season. To be a part of a team that gets to the World Series, it doesn’t happen by accident. It starts in Spring Training, all the games and all those games in the playoffs. I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. Clemente grew up in Puerto Rico and Maz grew up in Ohio. We crossed paths at the same time. How lucky I was to be part of that group. We marched through that whole thing and came out world champions. 1972 was a better team especially having gone through that experience.
You’re telling me that the 1972 team was better?
Absolutely. Because we went through that experience, we were the same people but because of the grind of a World Series, it made us better. Bill Virdon, who has done everything in baseball, said the 1972 Pirates were the best team he has ever been around. It might sound like sour grapes but in my judgment the best team in baseball is the team that wins the most games during the season. That’s the real test. Seven-game series? God bless the World Series champion but you can get any major league team to get hot and win it. So we didn’t make it in 1972 but that was one heck of a baseball team. That was machinery.
So then who would be the mechanical piece on that 1972 team?
It would be the pieces. We were a unique baseball club. I think you are your own leader but we had guys who were examples on how to play the game in all three aspects. We had a White guy, a Latino guy and a Black guy. Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell. That group, when we were young Pirates, we learned how to conduct ourselves, how to apply ourselves by watching them.You look at that bathroom mirror that’s going to ask you tough questions and you better be able to answer. Teammates come, teammates go but that mirror is always there. It cost $39.00 at Home Depot. It’s the best motivational tool I’ve ever seen. In 1973, Clemente isn’t there. The grieving in this city has never stopped. His name is everywhere. His legacy is incredible in the game of baseball, in schools, parks, streets named after him. That year, I was terrible but it was a minor league system that produced throughout the 1970s. In 1974, baseball goes on regardless of what happens. Baseball continues and it became a great decade for the Pirates in the 1970s culminating with the 1979 championship.
Before I ask you about broadcasting career, your teammate Dave Cash said you were the funniest guy in that clubhouse. My question is do you have a funny story about Roberto or Willie Stargell, whether they were present for the practical joke or it happened directly to one of them?
Clemente and I were close. He trusted me. You had to validate yourself as a young Pirate to be on the same ballclub with Clemente. We had him on that pedestal. When I finally felt I belonged, I went over to his locker and said, “Hey Roberto, here’s the deal. If I ever get traded, I’m going to pitch you inside because every National League pitcher pitches you away and you hit .350 every year. He said, “Blass, let me tell you one thing if you pitch me inside, I will hit the ball to Harrisburg.” As for Stargell, he got us to the World Series in 1979. He had a second chance because he didn’t have a good series in 1971. But in Game 7 of the 1971 World Series, Willie is on first. He didn’t have great speed. They put on the hit-and-run. Pagan hits a double. Willie gets to second base and Frank Oceak, the third base coach is waving to him. And Willie says to me, “I’m looking at Frank saying, ‘Really?’ and I get to third base and he’s still waving me in to score.” Willie rounds third and slides into home plate. He literally surrendered at home plate. We are wetting ourselves in the dugout. We are watching this because he could go no further. We thought about helping him out.
Let’s talk about your broadcasting career. Who helped you with the transition from being a ballplayer to a commentator?
As a starting pitcher, you have four days off so I would practice broadcasting. I realized I couldn’t do play-by-play so maybe I could be a color guy. I love to read. I think reading is the basis of vocabulary. You have to have a strong vocabulary to get in quickly and make your point. I finally got the chance because the Pirates had Jim Rooker, Lanny Frattare and John Sanders. They wanted a fourth guy so they could have two on radio and two on TV so they auditioned a lot of us. I went to Houston and did a game. That’s how it got started. Bob Prince and I start doing some cable games.You’re not allowed to have any booze in the broadcast booth. He calls down to the press room and all I can here was “Send up two screwdrivers.” I actually thought we were going to tighten something in the booth (laughter). There must have been some orange juice shortage too. That was my first introduction to Bob Prince. I had no clue what I was doing with the mechanics. The next day people were saying, “This is great!” I don’t discuss the analytics on the air. I will leave that to somebody else. I rely on stories. Baseball to me is about stories and they all revolve around the Pittsburgh Pirates.
This year is the culmination of 60 years. And I want to catch up with my life and I want to catch up with my wife. Sixty years later…it’s time.
By Danny Torres @DannyT21
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