Mehno: Retiring Blass has seen it all with Pirates

PITTSBURGH — Steve Blass didn’t get to end his pitching career on his own terms.

He will get that privilege in closing out his broadcasting career, though.

Blass announced Tuesday morning that his 34th season in the Pirates’ booth will be his last. He will continue to be associated with the Pirates as a goodwill ambassador and through the team’s alumni association.

Blass, 76, has been gearing slowly toward retirement. He has been working a schedule limited to home games since 2004, and he has been spending most of the winter in Florida for about a decade.

Blass first signed with the Pirates out of high school in 1960. That was before the draft. The Pittsburgh organization has been the only one he’s ever known.

His loyalty has been unquestioned. Although he generally avoids conflict, he cornered a writer in the press box last summer and took him to task over what Blass felt was inadequate Pirates coverage by the writer’s newspaper.

People who know Blass only as the guy who tells funny stories about the good old days may not realize how good a pitcher he was. Because of his self-deprecating style, they may not realize he was a staff leader on championship teams.

He pitched two complete game victories in the 1971 World Series — the tide-turning third game and the deciding seventh game.

He was even better in 1972, winning 19 games, making the All-Star team and leaving the deciding game of the playoffs with the lead.

The bullpen lost that game, and nobody realized it was the start of a calamitous time for the Pirates.

Roberto Clemente died in a New Year’s Eve plane crash. Blass struggled through the opener in 1973, although it didn’t set off any alarms. That would change quickly enough.

Blass, whose calling card was pinpoint control, suddenly couldn’t throw strikes. Worse, he didn’t know why that skill had abruptly deserted him. There was no injury issue. He put in extra work. He studied films. He saw a psychologist. Nothing helped.

He worried that he’d injure someone with an errant pitch. He admitted there were nights when he’d sit in his back yard with a drink and wonder “why me” as tears streamed down his face. The season was a disaster. The next season wasn’t any better. Blass pitched in one April game, walked seven in five innings and went to the minor leagues by mutual agreement.

The Pirates brought him back in September, but he didn’t pitch. He sat on the floor of the clubhouse and wistfully watched his teammates celebrate the divisional title they’d won without him.

He gave it one last shot in spring training of 1975. That failed, and he announced his retirement from baseball weeks short of his 33rd birthday. Ballplayers didn’t have million dollar salaries then, so he got a job selling class rings to high schools. The hero of the 1971 World Series was setting the alarm for 5 a.m. to make a sales call in Oil City.

Blass drifted back to baseball in 1983 when the Pirates started doing cable games on a limited basis. He worked with Bob Prince, who was then well past his prime.

Eventually Blass was added to the regular broadcast team, and that’s the job from which he retired on a frosty Tuesday morning. The announcement came at the third ballpark he’s known in his time with the Pirates.

Not counting spring training, he has 81 games left to tell how Billy Williams and Willie McCovey used to murder his pitches, and what a luxury it was to find a carpeted clubhouse at Three Rivers and reminisce about Clemente.

“My career record is 74-2,” Blass said. “I’m 76 years old and I had 74 good years and two really bad ones. I’ll take 74-2.”

(John Mehno can be reached at: johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com)

—that’s all—

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