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'Pops' epitomized Pirates

| Tuesday, April 10, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

The most popular Pirate at PNC Park on Monday was cast in bronze.

Hours before the first regular-season pitch at PNC Park, scores of fans gathered around the statue of Willie Stargell - just outside the Pirates' new ballpark - to pay tribute to the Hall of Fame slugger. He died early yesterday in a Wilmington, N.C., hospital of a stroke at age 61.

Fans took turns having their pictures taken in front of the 12-foot bronze statue, which the team dedicated Saturday. Several people had placed flowers and 1970s-era Pirates baseball caps at the feet of the statue, which portrays 'Pops' in his batting stance.

'I grew up being a fan of the Pirates, and I've been a Willie Stargell fan all my life,' said Cheryl Cline, 43, of San Diego, a Fayette County native.

Cline, who placed flowers in front of the statue, attended the final Pirates game at Three Rivers Stadium in October, when Stargell threw the final pitch and received a thunderous ovation from the sell-out crowd.

'When I woke up this morning and heard he passed away, I couldn't believe it,' Cline said.

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Many fans had trekked across the state and across the nation to watch the Pirates christen PNC Park. The day was rendered all the more poignant by the death of Stargell, a hero of the great Pirates teams of the 1970s.

'Willie, Roberto,' said Debby David, her voice choked with emotion. 'They stood together in life. Now they stand together in the new park.'

A statue of Roberto Clemente, the legendary Pirate outfielder who died in a plane crash in 1972, stands outside PNC Park not far from Stargell's likeness.

'We need heroes like Willie. Like Coach (Chuck) Tanner said, he never let his uniform touch the ground. The uniform's like a flag,' said David, 52, of Ambridge. 'Baseball's more than just a game. It's a way of life.'



Read Willie Stargell's Baseball Hall of Fame biography .
Stargell, with 475 home runs, was one of the greatest home run hitters ever, batting clean-up for most of his 20-year career. He helped carry the Pirates to World Series victories in 1971 and 1979. He was a leader and father figure to other players, giving out his trademark stars to players who had shown extra effort.

'He was probably my first baseball hero growing up. ...Pops was the man, all through the '70s. He was the Pittsburgh Pirates,' said Glenn Winegardner, 39, of Gaithersburg, Md.

'He was the man, whether he was in left field or first base. He epitomized the Pirates.'

Yesterday was particularly touching for fans who had seen Stargell play in Forbes Field, where he played his first eight seasons before Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970.

'My whole family grew up rooting for the Pirates,' said Ken Shildt, 62, of Indiana County. 'He was the Pittsburgh Pirates. I'm saddened today.'

Jonathan Potts can be reached at jpotts@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7900.

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