Still having a Blass in baseball

Broadcaster’s swan song makes a stop in Altoona

04/11/19 By Gary M. Baranec Former Pirate Steve Blass signs autographs for baseball fans like Nancy Waibel of Duncansville.

It has been said that in life, when one door closes, another one often opens. That certainly appears to be true in the case of Steve Blass, whose 10-year pitching career with the Pittsburgh Pirates ended due to a mysterious affliction in the mid-1970s, but who has gone on to fashion a successful 36-year career as a television and radio color commentator with the Bucs.

Blass, who will turn 77 next Thursday, announced this past January that this will be his last year behind the broadcast microphone.

His self-effacing but informative and insightful style will be missed. Blass threw out the first pitch prior to the Altoona Curve’s season opener with Akron Thursday night at Peoples Natural Gas Field, toed the rubber, and bounced the offering on one hop in to home plate.

“After all this rest between starts, I should have thrown a better strike,” Blass quipped.

That dry sense of humor and self-deprecating wit has made Blass a hit with radio and television fans of the Pirates for the past three and a half decades.

But later this year, his broadcasting days, like his pitching days, will come to an end.

“It’s a little bittersweet, because it’s been so long, and broadcasting has been a wonderful second career,” Blass said. “But everything runs its course, and everything has its own time.”

Blass is leaving the booth to spend more time with his wife, Karen, their two grown sons, five grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

“My wife Karen and I have talked about it the last couple of years, and we decided that when it (retirement from broadcasting) felt right, we’d know, and it felt right to do it at this time,” Blass said.

“I’m ready. I’m ready to not have that responsibility every night, and to catch up with my life, catch up with my wife,” said Blass, who started his broadcasting career with the Pirates as a part-time color commentator in 1983, took a full-time post in 1986, and before the 2005 season, got the Pirates’ blessing to work home games only, and has been doing that since. “I’ll still be going to ballgames with my sons, taking my grandkids. So everything is falling into place. I think the timing is right.”

Blass said that he learned something from everybody with whom he has worked in broadcasting — from the late, legendary Bob Prince to current colleagues Greg Brown, Joe Block, John Wehner and Bob Walk.

“Broadcasting has been a blessing,” said Blass, a Canaan, Conn. native who has had a 60-year affiliation with the Pirates. “I wanted to take a shot at it and see if I could do it, and I’ve made so many friends in broadcasting over (30-plus) years. This has been round two of a very special life for me.”

Round one was Blass’ pitching career with the Pirates, in which he posted a career record of 103-76 with an earned run average of 3.63, tossed two complete-game victories against the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series, and was a National League All-Star in 1972, when he won 19 games.

But the 1973 season was the beginning of the end for Blass, who suddenly and mysteriously lost his ability to throw the ball anywhere near home plate. By 1974, he was in the minor leagues, and before the 1975 season, he retired from the game.

The malady — for which the term Steve Blass Disease was coined — led to a lot of agony and soul-searching.

But Blass ultimately came out on the other side.

“It was the two most difficult years of my life, because it just all went away so quickly, and I don’t know to this day what caused all that,” said Blass, one of several major-leaguers to experience the throwing struggle over the past 40 years. “But I’m happy that it didn’t ruin my love for baseball. I lived all my dreams. I got to the big leagues, played in a World Series, played in an all-star game. I’ve got no gripes. I sleep well.”

Indeed, Blass plans to enjoy the rest of this season, and his years beyond that.

“This season has already been a joy,” Blass said. “The Pirates have been phenomenal. We had a little ceremony down in spring training which was absolutely wonderful, and it’s special to have the chance to come here to Altoona and say ‘Hello’ to some people who follow the Pirates and who have been kind enough to follow my career over the years.”

The Pirates will hold a special day for Blass at PNC Park on Sunday, Sept. 29, when the Bucs play their regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Reds.

“I’m sure that (day) will involve a lot of emotions, as it should,” said Blass, who will remain with the Pirates as an alumni ambassador after this season. “But I’m going to continue to try to give back as much to the Pirates organization, the city of Pittsburgh, and the surrounding areas as they’ve given to me.”