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One of the iconic baseball photos of the early 1970s was taken seconds after the decisive game of the 1971 World Series. In it, a jubilant Steve Blass is frozen in mid-air, with equally exuberant catcher Manny Sanguillen racing towards the man who capped a 15-8, 2.85 ERA season with a second straight Series complete game win. In his prime at 29, Blass looked like he’d be among the National League elite pitchers for years.
Younger fans may not remember Blass. But perhaps Rick Ankiel, Chuck Knoblauch or Mark Wohlers are more familiar names. All three, without overt physical ailments, inexplicably lost the ability to perform the routine — in the case of Knoblauch, the throw to first; for Ankiel and Wohlers, 60 feet, 6 inches from mound to plate.
Before Ankiel, Knoblauch and Wohlers (and in 2012, for a while, Daniel Bard), there was Steve Blass.
Blass was even better in ’72, carving a 19-8, 2.49 mark. But when the spring of ’73 came, something came undone. Suddenly, once the game started, he lost all control. Nothing he tried — and Blass gave every theory a whirl — could cure him of what has since been known as “Steve Blass Disease.”
Well-liked by his teammates and Pirates management, Blass was given every chance to work his way back. After two disastrous years, which included a return to the minors, his body still strong, fit and healthy, with 91 walks in 93 MLB innings and an even worse ratio in 17 AAA starts, his career was over.
In his new book Steve Blass: A Pirate for Life (Triumph Books, 256 pp.), the righty doesn’t look for excuses nor does he show any regrets. Perhaps that straightforward way of looking at life helped him get through times when baseball, all he had known, was suddenly gone.
Blass epitomizes what those talented, diverse, tough early-70s Pirates were like. Loose clubhouses with Sanguillen, Clemente, Willie Stargell, Dave Giusti and others kept things light — Blass tells more than a few great behind-closed-doors stories — but on the field they were all business.
Ever honest, Blass talks about those and other trying times, when he may have relied too much on alcohol. But compared with the kinds of transgressions of other public figures past and present, his issues in this area are relatively tame.
After some time out of the game, Blass returned to the Pirates as a broadcaster. He was honored for 50 years with the club in 2009, and his folksy broadcast style has entertained generations of Bucs fans.
Blass isn’t defined by the “disease” that informally bears his name, but by how his love of the game and loyalty to friends and the Pirates organization have left a lasting mark.
Topics: Baseball Photos, Chuck Knoblauch, Closed Doors, Clubhouses, Complete Game, Daniel Bard, Decisive Game, Giusti, Looking At Life, Manny Sanguillen, Mid Air, Physical Ailments, Pitchers, Rick Ankiel, Steve Blass Disease, Straight Series, Triumph Books, Whirl, Willie Stargell, Wohlers