Steve Blass to retire after his 60th season with Pirates
On the day Steve Blass announced this season will be his 34th and last in the Pittsburgh Pirates broadcast booth, all 60 of his years with the team surfaced like little bits and pieces of his life put back together in a picture frame.
He remembered old friends he met along the way as a pitcher and broadcaster, and he talked about them in reverential terms in a 40-minute story-telling session Tuesday at PNC Park.
Among them were the veteran Jerry Lynch chastising Blass, a rookie, in the clubhouse in 1964; two colleagues and friends walking through the doors of a church in Falls Village, Conn., on the day of his father’s funeral; even an old lady in the produce section of Giant Eagle.
He had written notes he carried onto the riser with him where he sat next to Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting. They were of little use.
“Trying to condense 60 years in a yellow, legal tablet page is not the easiest,” said Blass, 76. “I don’t know how long this is going to take, but we did lock the back door so nobody can leave.”
After he started talking, nobody had any such intentions.
Bob Walk, a broadcast partner since 1994, compared Blass to Bob Hope.
“He’s a great entertainer,” Walk said. “To me, he reminds me of Bob Hope or somebody like that who has always got a great story at the right time. His delivery is always perfect. He’s always in a great mood, even when I know he’s not.”
Nutting called Blass “a Pirate for life,” which he will be even after the season. He’ll continue to provide analysis and his wealth of stories from the broadcast booth at all home games and on selected road trips this season. Then, he’ll assume ambassadorial duties for the team in 2020 that, he said, will keep him coming back to the ballpark on a regular basis.
“I just can’t pull the plug on not being part of the Pirates,” Blass said.
His Pirates career began in 1960 when he begged scouts for a tryout, showed some of the ability he developed on the fields of Falls Village and was given a $4,000 signing bonus and $250 per month to play in Kingsport, Tenn. “I was wealthy beyond my wildest dreams,” he said.
Three days after Blass married high school sweetheart Karen Lamb in 1963, he went to the Dominican Republic — not for vacation, but to learn to throw the slider.
“It was under siege,” Blass said of the Dominican. “(Dictator) Rafael Trujillo had just been assassinated, so it was a nice honeymoon. We had military police and machine gunners in the dugout, but I learned the slider down there and that’s how I got to the big leagues.”
A year later, he made his Pirates debut.
“I was naïve. I was all full of myself,” he said.
One day, Blass was relaxing in the clubhouse during batting practice when Lynch, one of the great Pirates pinch-hitters of all-time, came in to get a bat.
“He said, ‘Kid, if I ever see you in here in the clubhouse when your team is on the field, I’m going to kick your butt all the way out to that field.’ I never forgot that life lesson from Jerry Lynch. Maybe not a Hall of Famer, but he sticks in my mind.”
Blass, of course, is best known as a World Series hero. He threw two complete games in 1971 to defeat the Baltimore Orioles, including the memorable Game 7 when he jumped into the ample arms of big first baseman Bob Robertson after the final out.
That game was part of a video the Pirates played Tuesday, with Blass never taking his eyes off the screen, a self-satisfied smile splashed on his face.
“I’ve seen it 1,000 times, and it still gets me,” he said. “That I can make that journey from Falls Village, Conn., and do that. You can’t tell a kid from Falls Village, Conn., that he’s not allowed to play in the big leagues.”
After Blass won Game 3, his father eluded security and jumped 10 feet from the dugout roof at Three Rivers Stadium to celebrate with his son. The moment was caught by the NBC cameras.
“He became the most famous plumber ever in Falls Village,” Blass said.
Years later, when Blass’ father died, Pirates play-by-play man Greg Brown and Marc Garda, the team’s director of broadcasting, drove 500 miles — after a night game — to attend the funeral. After driving through the night, they changed into suits in a restroom at a McDonald’s in Falls Village.
“Those kind of people, yeah, you want to work with them, but you want those kind of people as friends,” he said. “I’ll never, ever forget that. You talk about being emotional. I saw them walk in, and I lost it.”
Blass’ career ended unceremoniously soon after he lost his control suddenly in 1973. He walked as many batters (84) in 88 innings as he did the previous year in 249 innings. Nonetheless, the Pirates (managers Danny Murtaugh and Bill Virdon and general manager Joe L. Brown) kept him on the team for the better part of two seasons while he tried to regain his control.
“Those are the things I get emotional about,” he said. “You don’t forget those things. I tried everything for those three years. I know I shouldn’t have been out on the mound, but I could not quit.”
Finally, he found himself in his Upper St. Clair backyard at 4 a.m. with “tears coming down my eyes because I knew I wasn’t going to be a Pirate anymore.”
He said fans never booed him, only getting eerily silent when he pitched “because they were rooting so hard.”
Yet, he never lost his sense of humor.
One day, in the produce section of Giant Eagle, he found he could laugh at himself.
“This older lady walks up to me and says, ‘The Pirates are terrible, and it’s your fault.’
I said, ‘Lady, I’m just here for the kumquats.’ ”
Blass said he is retiring from announcing in good health, but it’s time.
“It feels right,” he said. “I’m kind of rounding third and heading for home, and I want to find out what the last 90 feet is like.
“I’ve been running with track shoes on for most of my life. Danny Murtaugh said after the 20th time he retired, you have to stop and smell the roses. I’ve driven by them constantly. It’s time.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .