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Jim O’Brien: Steve Blass deserves the kind of season the Pirates are providing these days

SEPTEMBER 24, 2013

Steve Blass deserves the kind of season  the Pirates are providing these days

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

This has been the best of summers and the best of seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steve Blass.

During last Saturday’s game, Blass said to his sidekick Greg Brown during the telecast, “This is great.  This is even gooder than good.”

I had to smile.  I knew Blass knew there is no such word as “gooder,” but he simply wanted to emphasize his joy over the way the Pirates were playing and winning games.  I felt good for Steve Blass.  His vocabulary is full of positive words.

We share some bonds.  We are both 71, and we live a mile apart in Upper St. Clair, and we both love to talk about our two kids – David and Chris in his case – and our grandkids.  He frequently refers to his wife, Karen Lamb, whom he married in 1964, and I am guilty of the same with my wife Kathie.

I visited with Blass in the press box before last Sunday afternoon’s game with the Chicago Cubs, which the Pirates would win 2-1 to remain tied with the St. Louis Cardinals and 3 1/2 games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central race.  As always, he was easy and casual company.  He wore a baseball cap so I was tipped off that this would be his day on the radio and he didn’t have to wear a tie to the ballpark.

They would be playing the San Diego Padres and the Reds in the remaining games on their home schedule, and then go to Chicago and Cincinnati to close out this season of all seasons.

This is the 30th season Blass has been in the broadcast booth for the Bucs.  He’s been there for 20 consecutive losing seasons prior to this one, a record in futility for major pro sports teams in North America.

They showed a fan in the stands with a sign that read: “LET’S GO, BUCKS!”  I told my wife that this was not a Pirates’ fan, but somebody who was jumping on the bandwagon and wanted to be seen on television.  You had to live in a cave the past 60 years to think they were the BUCKS and not the BUCS.

This is Pittsburgh and not Milwaukee, where the pro basketball team is called the Bucks.  There are a lot of people at PNC Park these days who just want to be part of the crowd, but it’s a great scene and great atmosphere anyhow.

Blass never complained about the 20 years of losing.  I knew he would say he enjoyed those 20 seasons, and that’s exactly what he said on Sunday.  “Hey, you’re still coming to the ballpark,” he said in the way of a Blass understatement.

“I love to drive here from my home, knowing I’m coming to the ballpark, knowing I’m going to be watching a baseball game.  I’m still living the dream.”

He also likes to say, “I’ve had a good life: one wife, one house and one team.”

He signed on with the Pirates out of high school in Connecticut in 1960, when the Pirates won the World Series thanks to Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game at Forbes Field.

Maz and Blass are both familiar figures in the Steel Valley as they frequently are celebrity participants in the Homestead Lions Club Golf Outing at Westwood and Blass has been a regular at the annual Sports Night dinner at the Thompson Club in West Mifflin.

Blass was the recipient of the Bob Prince Award for media excellence along the way and he will be one of the winners of that award who will be honored at the club on Tuesday, October 8.  I was similarly honored years ago and plan to attend the dinner coordinated by fellow Valley Mirror columnist Darrell Hess.

Blass has known the best and the worst of Pirates seasons on a personal level.  He had a 10-year career as a pitcher for the Pirates and pitched two complete games in the 1971 World Series, giving up only seven hits and two runs in 18 innings while posting two victories.  Think about the enormity of that feat.  No one pitches complete games these days, let alone in a World Series.

Back in 2009, at a golf outing featuring former Pirates, Blass had two holes-in-one over 18 holes at the Greensburg Country Club.  The odds against doing that are infinitesimal.  And he didn’t do it playing with a cousin somewhere out in the Poconos.

Blass is a friend of professional golfer Jim Furyk and when he heard that Furyk had scored a 59 in the second round of the BMW Championship at Lake Forest, Illinois, Blass called Furyk and left a message congratulating him for being only the sixth golfer in PGA history to score that low.

Blass also mentioned that it was almost as terrific a feat as his two holes-in-one in the same round.

Furyk left a message for Blass that night saying while he never had two holes-in-one the same day he didn’t want to hear from Blass again until he had a 59 in a golf outing.

Blass enjoyed the exchange. On Saturday, Blass was mentioned in similar byplay by Ken Dryden, a Hall of Fame goalie with the Montreal Canadiens, who was in the stands at PNC Park.

During a televised interview with Robby Incmikoski, Dryden mentioned how he beat out Steve Blass by one vote for the Lifesaver Award in 1971.  Dryden won an expensive foreign sports car and Blass said he ended up with a record player.  “But it was a nice record player,” said Blass, “and I couldn’t pronounce the name of the car anyway.”

“Or spell it,” added Dryden, with a final dig.

Dryden had come from Toronto with his wife and had caught a baseball game in Cleveland, then Pittsburgh and would be going to Detroit.  “I’m a big baseball fan, and it’s a chance to see three contenders in one swoop,” said Dryden, whom I remembered as always being a cerebral and thoughtful interview when I covered the National Hockey League back in the ‘70s.  He’s like Blass in that regard, and was a reminder of how good some guys are in the business.

Blass has been with the Pirates for 54 years.  “I’ve run my race,” he said when we spoke last Sunday.  “I can stand back and be happy for these guys.

“I am happy for the fans —especially that core of 8,000 to 10,000 fans who stuck with the Pirates through the toughest of times – and I’m happy for the city.

“This was a baseball town before it was a football town or a hockey town.  Hey, I’m a fan of the Steelers and I’m a fan of the Penguins.  I pull for them, too.  People are up on the Pirates now and down on the Steelers.

“I see people in the super market and I tell them, ‘Stick with the Steelers; they are still our Pittsburgh Steelers.  You have to stay loyal.”

Blass has been loyal to the Pirates and they have been loyal to him.  “I’m a lifer,” he says proudly.  He has not traveled on the road with the team for the past nine seasons, but he attends many functions and luncheons and dinners and golf outings on behalf of the Bucs to promote the team while the Pirates are on the road.

Anyone who gets to play golf with Blass has a blast. He is a funny guy.  And a good contributor to the score for any foursome.

“My bucket list includes wanting to play golf with Jim Furyk in Jacksonville, where he lives, on the way to spring training this year.”  Blass goes to Bradenton, Florida at the beginning of each year and spends the winter there.

Turning to baseball, Blass said, “I’ve experienced the best and the worst seasons, I survived 1973 and that was no fun.”

That was the next to the last season for Blass as a pitcher for the Pirates.  He could no longer control his pitches and couldn’t find the plate.  His ratio of walks to strikeouts is the worst in the game since 1901.  His sudden loss of his ability to command his pitches became known in baseball as “the Steve Blass disease.”

That’s well behind him now.  “I love good pitching and we have some good pitchers,” said Blass.  “Our bullpen has been lights out most of the season.  I think Mark Melancon could give Andrew McCutcheon a run for MVP on this team.”

Melancon would go on that Sunday to pitch a perfect ninth inning and, for the second day in a row, preserve a one-run lead for his 16th save of the season. “I think Neal Huntington, our general manager, should be the executive of the year,” said Blass.  “That was a gutsy move in trading Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox; he’d been so great as a closer for us, and going with Jason Grilli and now Melancon in that role.  He got us the players we need for the stretch run.”

Blass believed that the Pirates would not be overmatched or overwhelmed if they met either the Cardinals or the Reds in the playoffs.  “They have shown they can play with these guys during the season,” he said.

“I tell these guys to make sure they don’t try to be better than they have been during the season.  I made that mistake in 1971. I thought I had to be better. You just have to be yourself and play the way you have played all year.

“I love seeing the young kids in the stands.  We’re going to make baseball fans out of these kids, and this is the first time in a long time we can say that.  I’m happy about that. I’m happy just to be able to come to the ballpark.

“I’m happy to be reminded of how great a game baseball is.”

During Saturday’s game, Blass quoted Roger Angell, one of the best authors ever on the subject of baseball. It goes like this:

“Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly, keep hitting, keep the rally alive and you have defeated time.  You remain forever young.”

I asked Blass if he kept a note on that quote in the broadcast booth to pull out when he needed it.  He pointed to a mural on the wall nearby that contained the Angell quote.  “No, I memorized that.”  To prove it, Blass repeated the quote just for my sake.  And smiled like a student who knew the answer to the test question.

Angell had written a lengthy piece on Blass for The New Yorker when Blass was experiencing his control problems in 1973.

Blass said he had a good feeling that they could stay the course as far back as July 21 when the Pirates pulled out a victory on a Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati.  That feeling was reinforced when the Bucs bounced back from being swept in St. Louis to sweeping the Rangers in Texas that they could do it.

“Just be yourself.  That’s good enough,” he said.  “Clint Hurdle has done a fine job of keeping everyone involved and giving everyone a chance to contribute.  That’s a real juggling act.  This is an exciting time to be a Bucs fan.  I’m enjoying the ride.”


Jim O’Brien has a new book “Chuck Noll – A Winning Way” available at his website. or by Googling Pittsburgh sports author Jim O’Brien.