He couldn’t sleep. It was understandable. He tried to get comfortable at ten o’clock, which quickly became eleven. The twenty-nine year old visitor from Pittsburgh faced the biggest day of his still young life the next afternoon. Thinking about it, tossing and turning, was getting him nowhere. Eleven became midnight, then one in the morning, two and finally at three he was so frustrated he decided to leave his hotel room and take a walk. Downtown Baltimore was deserted. It was an unseasonably warm sixty degrees and once he got outside there was nobody in sight. Not a police officer. Not even a mugger.
He returned to the hotel about a half hour later and in the lobby was a colleague who also had a lot on his mind, worrying about getting home in time for his wedding the next day. So they sat down together but never said a word to each other. They stared straight ahead in silence. After an hour and eyes half open, he finally left his buddy, found the elevator, went back to his room and grabbed some cherished rest.
It was October 17, 1971, and later that afternoon, high on adrenaline, he took his second Baltimore walk of the day. This one was about four miles from the hotel, around a pile of dirt, with over 47,000 people watching.
Steve Blass did something that afternoon that hasn’t been done again by a baseball pitcher in the National League. And it won’t be done on Monday night by the Phillies’ Noah Syndergaad, the Astros’ Lance McCullers Jr. or anyone in this World Series. Nor probably for decades to come. It has only been done twice since, by American League pitchers, but that was a lifetime ago: Brett Saberhagen of the Royals did it in 1985 and Jack Morris of the Tigers in 1991.
All three pitched complete games in Game 7 of the World Series to bring championships to their cities. Blass, almost sleepless, did it years earlier in ‘71 against the Orioles.
“The morning of Game 7 was the longest four or five hours of my life,” he remembered. “It was agony. The most nervous I’ve ever been. I couldn’t wait to get started.”
For those of you who don’t remember Blass, or 1971, or even the Pirates ever being relevant, it’s understandable as it’s been half a century. Pittsburgh won the Series in 1960 over the Yankees and in ‘71 and again in 1979 in Baltimore. Since then, the only way the Bucs can get into the World Series is with a ticket.
I’ve known Steve for over a dozen years. I met him at my first Pirates fantasy camp in 2010, and as the years passed we became friendly. He is the resident camp comedian: a very funny guy, could have done standup, while also serving as the kangaroo court judge with no judicial checks and balances. He is a baseball lifer and has been with the Pirates’ organization as a player, broadcaster and now ambassador for over 60 years. At 80 he’s still sharp as a baseball spike. He hasn’t lost his wit, just some of his judgment as evidenced six years ago at fantasy camp when he drafted me to play for his team. However, he explained it this way, “By the time we got to you there really wasn’t much left on the board. Plus I needed someone who also smoked cigars in case I ran short.” Playing for Blass was a one and done. He never picked me again.
Ironically, I phoned him a few weeks ago on October 17. He led off the conversation by asking me if I knew it was the 51st anniversary of the complete Game 7. I said I did and asked him if he wakes up every October 17 and remembers. “It’s something I can’t forget,” he laughed. “Karen (Mrs. Blass) reminds me every year that it is our sons’ anniversary. They both got married on October 17. My achievement has been reduced to a footnote in our house.”
It was Blass’ own doing in 1971 that he was a nervous wreck walking inner city streets in the wee hours of the morning. That year was the third of the expanded baseball playoffs, when the top two teams in each league would play a best of five to get to the World Series.
The Pirates won the NL East in ‘71 and the Giants the NL West. In the American League it was Baltimore and Oakland. The Orioles had no trouble dispatching the A’s in three straight. The Pirates won 97 games to win the East and beat San Francisco in four with no help from Blass who was shelled in his two outings. Dock Ellis had won 19 games that season and Blass 15. Manager Danny Murtaugh decided to give the ball to Blass for the opening playoff game
It didn’t work out very well for Pittsburgh. In his two starts against the Giants, Blass finished with an 11.57 ERA, giving up nine earned runs in only seven innings.
“Oh man, I got crushed,” Steve chuckled while recalling the debacle. “I never pitched in the post season before, and I got caught in the trap that I had to be better and throw harder than I ever did in my career. When I got hit hard in the first game, I was more determined to prove it was a fluke in the next outing and the Giants knocked me all over the place.”
The big bats of the Pirates: Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Bob Robertson, Richie Hebner, Manny Sanguillen and gang were able to overcome bad starting pitching and carried the team to the World Series. When Murtaugh was setting up his pitching rotation for the World Series against Baltimore, he penciled in Blass for game three at home.
“I told myself after the playoff round that if I get a start in the World Series I will go back to being the guy that got me there,” the right-hander who grew up in the small Connecticut town of Falls Village as a Cleveland Indians fan remembered. In fact, to this day he still has a scrapbook he put together as a 12-year-old kid during the 1954 Indians season when they won 111 games and took a very rare trip to the World Series but ultimately lost to the then New York Giants.
Blass needed to be the guy once again in the ‘71 World Series that he was in the regular season. The Pirates with Ellis and Bob Johnson starting the first two games got beat 5-3 and 11-3 to fall into a two game hole. With the Series moving to Pittsburgh, Steve Blass had to be the Pirates stopper, or it was all but over.
“I knew what was on the line and I knew we needed to win,” he said. “I also knew I had to abandon trying to throw the ball as hard as I could past people and go back to the slider which was my out pitch all season long.”
The magic returned in Game 3 with the Pirates behind Blass and his sliders beating Mike Cuellar and the O’s 3-1. Blass threw a complete game allowing only three hits and striking out eight in an unthinkable two hours and twenty minutes.
For those new to the game of baseball over the last twenty years, or someone who never heard of one, a complete game is when the same pitcher throws every inning of a game for his team. It’s something that has disappeared just like Bosco in a kid’s milk. Once upon a time there were no batting gloves, taped bats or histrionics before every pitch. Games took less than three hours from the national anthem to the final out. Once upon a time.
“Back then we took the baseball and pitched,” Blass said. “It was no big deal. There was no pitch count and no speed guns. We approached every start that we were going to pitch nine innings. I really don’t know what’s happened since then. The pitchers of today are physically capable, but they are no longer trained that way. Teams may be trying to protect their investment but there are more pitchers on the disabled list today than ever before.”
He continued, “Can you imagine what would happen to the manager or pitching coach who had to tell Bob Gibson he was on a pitch count and finished for the day? Oh my. I wouldn’t want to be him!”
Back to 1971 and Blass knowing the importance of the Pirates winning game three. “At that point Baltimore had won 16 games in a row between the regular season, the playoffs and the first two games of the World Series. They also were the defending Series champions. I knew if we didn’t win the third game we were finished. So yes I felt the pressure, but also knew if I pitched my kind of game we’d have a chance.”
Following their 3-1 win behind Blass, the Pirates also won Games 4 and 5 at home to turn the Orioles streak from 16 wins in a row to three straight losses. As the Series returned to Baltimore, remarkably Pittsburgh was one game from a ring.
Bob Moose got the start for the Pirates in Game 6 against future Jockey underwear spokesperson Jim Palmer. The Pirates got off to a 2-0 lead, Baltimore tied it after seven and won it in the 10th to force a showdown seventh game.
“Nobody was rooting any harder for Bob Moose to close it out than I was,” Blass, who knew he would be the Game 7 starter, said. “I’ll never forget as soon as Baltimore won it in the 10th, Murtaugh tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Tag, you’re it’.”
Thus began the longest night of Steve Blass’ still young life. He kicked the sheets, kept turning over the pillow, put on the television, shut off the television, paced around his room and tried to read until finally grabbing his key at 3 am and walking around the block.
“If a cop would have stopped me, the way I was just walking aimlessly, I’m probably doing time for vagrancy,” he laughed. For the Orioles the best thing that could have happened was Blass getting tossed in the clink.
Matched up once again in the decider against Cuellar they were both incredibly efficient. The Pirates got a run in the fourth on a Roberto Clemente home run to take a 1-0 lead into the eighth.
Blass’ second walk around the city of Baltimore, this time at a packed Memorial Stadium, actually happened the previous inning. “I went out to start the bottom of the seventh and I walked a complete circle around the pitching mound,” he recalled. “ I didn’t know if I would ever get back to a situation like that again in my career so I took a stroll and soaked it in.”
The Pirates added a run in the eighth on an RBI double by light-hitting Jose Pagan, while the O’s nicked Blass for one in the bottom of the inning with Don Buford knocking in Elrod Hendricks on a fielder’s choice. Baltimore left a runner on third.
The score remained 2-1 entering the bottom of the ninth. Two hours and five minutes after the first pitch, Blass was throwing a gem giving up a run on four hits and striking out five. Despite reliever Dave Guisti getting up and down to loosen up a few times, Pirates boss Murtaugh decided to stick with Blass in the ninth. Years later Steve was told he was nearing 100 pitches, a formula that would have sent him to the showers in the modern game.
“I never really gave them a choice whether or not to take me out,” Blass said. “I left the field after the bottom of the eighth and went right into the clubhouse. I didn’t want to run the risk of Murtaugh or (pitching coach) Don Osborn seeing me and having a conversation. I figured the best thing to do was just get out of sight and run back on the field for the bottom of the ninth.”
Baltimore had Boog Powell, Frank Robinson and Merv Rettenmund scheduled. Blass recalled: “The two hitters I feared most were Powell and Robinson, but I was so locked in and pitching with nothing but adrenaline it didn’t matter.”
He got Powell to ground out to second baseman Dave Cash on four pitches. Up to the plate strolled Robinson.
“Frank homered off me in Game 3 and I challenged him again with the same slider he hit out,” Blass smiled. “But before I threw it I looked up to the Lord and said, ‘If you let me get him out now, I’ll always be on my best behavior.’”
Robinson got under the slider and popped out to shortstop Jackie Hernandez. “As soon as the ball went up in the air,” Blass laughed, “I turned to the Lord and said, ‘Only kidding.’”
Four pitches later, Rettenmund hit a grounder to short that Hernandez fielded cleanly and tossed to Bob Robertson for the World Championship. It also produced one of the most fabled baseball sights this side of a Fosbury Flip. Whoever said white men couldn’t jump didn’t witness Blass leaping skyward, a foot or three off the ground, with arms and legs wide into the arms of Robertson.
“I had been practicing that on my driveway since I was ten years old,” he bragged. “I always thought about what I would do if I won the World Series and that was the time.”
Turns out he wasn’t the only leaper in the family. As the Pirates mobbed Blass on the field, Steve’s dad Bob jumped off the top of the dugout, ran past security and joined the fray. Tony Kubek of NBC was on the field for post-game interviews.
“Tony saw what my dad did and insisted on having him join me when we talked,” Blass said. “It’s stuff like that you just can’t script.”
A case, a strong one in fact, can be made for Steve being the 1971 World Series MVP. Without him winning Game 3 and Game 7 Pittsburgh probably goes home empty. Nevertheless the sportswriters gave the Sport Magazine Dodge Charger to Clemente who hit.414 with two home runs including one in Game 7 and had four RBI. The 37-year-old was the first Hispanic to ever win the award. Clemente would perish in a plane crash fourteen months later.
“I’ve heard people say I should have been the MVP,” Blass humbly said and added, “I was really happy for Clemente and all he meant to Pittsburgh and the game of baseball. He deserved it.”
That winter Blass was a staple on the rubber chicken banquet circuit talking about his World Series heroics. Looking back, the concept of throwing not one, but two complete games in a World Series will never happen again. Surely not in our lifetime, anyway. The Pirates gave him a nice raise, from $70,000 to $90K. He responded with a career year in 1972 winning 19 games. Eleven of those 19 wins were complete games. He was a National League All-Star. And then everything went south.
After nine seasons and a career record of 103-76, Steve Blass forgot how to pitch. In ‘73 he was 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA. In 1974 he made one appearance out of the bullpen, pitched five innings giving up five earned runs and eight hits. He was finished. Only two years earlier he was pitching complete games in the World Series. A couple of seasons later he looked like the typical fantasy camp pitcher.
“I wish I could explain it but to this day I can’t,” he said. “It just went away. Physically I was fine. Psychologically, I just couldn’t pitch anymore.” Maybe Yogi Berra was right when he said, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.”
What became known as ‘Steve Blass disease’ has since impacted Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, Mark Wohlers, Rick Ankiel, Dontrelle Willis, Mackey Sasser and a whole bunch more.
“I’m just glad it happened at the end of my career and not the beginning,” he said.
So are the 1971 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.