After 60 seasons of baseball, World Series hero Steve Blass steps into retirement
Steve Blass remembers sitting in the backyard of his Upper St. Clair home at 4 a.m. during the summer of 1973 with tears running down his face. He knew he wasn’t going to be pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates much longer.
After winning 19 games and earning a spot on the National League All-Star team the previous season, the veteran hurler had suddenly and mysteriously lost the ability to control his pitches. He could no longer throw strikes when he wanted to or, on many occasions, put the ball anywhere near home plate. He simply had no idea where it was going.
Blass had been stricken with a bout of wildness that he couldn’t seem to shake. It might fade for a game or two, but it never completely went away. He finished the ’73 season with a 3-9 record and 9.81 ERA. The next year he was sent down to the minors, and during spring training in 1975, the Pirates released him.
Despite leading the Pirates to an upset of the Baltimore Orioles by pitching two complete game victories in the 1971 World Series and winning 103 games over a 10-year major league career, it appeared he was destined to be remembered for a malady that came to be known as “Steve Blass disease.”
But that was before he turned to broadcasting.
On Sunday, Blass, 77, will retire from the Pirates radio and TV booth after 34 seasons as a color commentator, making him the longest tenured announcer in team history. Since signing his first professional contract with the Pirates as a player in June 1960, Blass has spent 60 years as a part of the organization.
“I’m going to miss it terribly, but I want to get out while I’m healthy,” Blass said. “I don’t want to be sick and say, ‘I’ve got to stop now because I’m sick.’ Sixty years is enough for anybody. I never thought it would go on this long.”
Blass will now be remembered as a friendly voice of summer, a knowledgeable guide who drew on his experiences as a pitcher to explain the finer points of the game of baseball, and a man with a wealth of stories, both comic and touching, to break up the monotony of many a losing season.
And it might not have happened if it hadn’t been for the two miserable years he spent desperately trying to hang on as a player.
The problem wasn’t physical. Blass never had arm problems.
Was it mental? Some speculated that the death of Roberto Clemente in a plane crash the previous winter had something to do with it. But in a phone conversation last week, Blass ruled that out. He is at peace with the notion he will probably never know exactly what happened.
“For me and my family, ’73 and ’74 were awful years,” Blass said. “I think the good Lord makes you get a perspective every once in a while. I probably learned as much about myself during those two years as I learned when I was flying high and everything was going my way.”
One of the things Blass said he learned was that playing baseball was what he did, not who he was. Another thing was he enjoyed being an analyst on baseball broadcasts. And he was good at it.
Wild start to broadcasting career
During the 1974 season when Blass was pitching for the Pirates’ minor league affiliate in Charleston, W.Va., he asked manager Steve Demeter if he could join radio play-by-play man Lanny Frattare in the broadcast booth if he got knocked out of the game early. Demeter said yes, as those early exits were becoming more frequent for Blass.
“He used to kid me when we were in Charleston,” said Frattare, the longtime voice of the Pirates and one of the announcers Blass was partnered with in the big leagues. “I’d see him before a game he was about to pitch and he’d say, ‘I’ll see you about the third inning.’ And in many cases he did, because he was having so many control problems.”
As Blass’ pitching ability was diminishing, his announcing skills were being honed.
“When it comes to broadcasting, Steve is a natural,” Frattare said. “Steve is very much himself on the air, and that’s what makes him successful. He doesn’t try to be overly analytical.
“What Steve does is that he makes sure he deals with the passion of the game, and that falls in line with the kind of person that he is.”
Unlike Frattare, however, Blass’ progression to the Pirates on-air team took longer than another season or two. He was doing clinics and appearances for the organization but also had to get a day job, which included selling class rings to high school students.
“I always thought I’d like to have a chance to be a broadcaster. I fantasized about it. I have this recall of all things baseball,” Blass said. “I can conjure up a thread of a memory. I can apply anything that happens in baseball to something that happened to me (as a player) if I want to verbalize it.
“The Pirates gave me another opportunity to live another part of my dream.”
After working some games as Bob Prince’s color man on cable TV for Home Sports Entertainment, Blass’ break came in 1986 when the Pirates decided to add a fourth announcer to their broadcast team of John Sanders, Jim Rooker and Frattare. That way, there would be two on television and two on radio.
“I often thought about the characters from ‘M*A*S*H,’ and Steve Blass is the Hawkeye Pierce of the Pirates broadcast team,” Frattare said. “He just has such a tremendous sense of humor. It’s more difficult to be humorous when the team is not doing well, but Steve’s always been a funny guy, and he lets that humor come across on the broadcast.”
One story Blass likes to tell is about pitching in the 1972 Major League All-Star Game when his catcher was Cincinnati’s Johnny Bench. Before the game, Bench asked Blass if he wanted to go over the signs. Based on his lack of success pitching to Bench, Blass quipped, “John, you always seem to know what I’m going to throw when you’re batting against me, so let’s just wing it.”
Earl Weaver’s unintended Series help
For a fan base as success-starved as the Pirates, hearing Blass talk about the ’71 World Series never got old.
One of the best stories was when he got off to a rocky start in Game 7 and Orioles manager Earl Weaver came out of the dugout and tried to rattle him. Weaver questioned where Blass was standing on the rubber before delivering the ball. He said he was in violation of Rule 801, which states the pitcher must throw from the front of the rubber.
“The first inning I’m throwing the ball all over the place. I walk somebody and he came out, and it was so fictitious. It doesn’t matter where you are on the mound as long as some part of your foot is making contact,” Blass said.
“Actually, I got so (ticked) off at him that I really forgot how nervous I was. Every time I saw him after the Series, I said, ‘Hey, Earl, great to see ya, thanks again for helping me settle down.’ ”
Blass ended up throwing a complete-game, 2-1 victory in which he allowed only four hits.
“Back when I was 10 years old, I used to dream about winning the World Series. Everybody has dreams, but I had a chance to live it. For that reason, I will always go back to the fact that the Pittsburgh Pirates gave me that opportunity. I had to be good enough to live it, but they opened the door. And I’ve never forgotten that.”
It’s for that reason Blass refuses to be critical of the Pirates organization on his way out the door, beyond saying the pitching must improve.
Blass’ State of the Game
Blass seems more concerned about the state of baseball broadcasts.
“The analytics — I know we’re in a world of numbers now and you’ve got to have them, but I wish there was a better balance. Baseball is a game of stories. Analytics are overwhelming. I hope the stories still remain strong in this era of information.”
Blass also feels strongly that all of the rule changes in big league baseball in recent years have not improved the game.
“You can’t break up a double play, you can’t bowl over a catcher, you can’t argue balls and strikes. The (replay) reviews, I think, delay the game.
“I pitched games in two hours and 20 minutes. I can’t imagine me standing on the mound and waiting for them to call New York. I’m cookin’, I’m on a rhythm, and now I’ve got to stand there? I’m an old dinosaur, but that’s what exists now.”
But Blass clearly loves the game just as much as he did when he was an 8-year-old growing up in Falls Village, Conn. There, he spent his summers playing baseball all day and listening to Mel Allen call Yankees games on the radio at night while creating scorecards on a yellow legal tablet.
In retirement, Blass, now of Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington neighborhood, said he will still be at the ballpark. He knows he can’t stay away.
“Baseball … it’s everything. Something goes on every night that will grab you somehow. The game is that good,” he said.
“People say, ‘How do you hold the ball?’ and I say, ‘You’ve got it wrong — the ball holds me.’ ”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].