Legends of the Precipitous Fall: Steve Blass
In 1971, Steve Blass of the Pittsburgh Pirates tossed a 4-hitter. In game 7. Of the World Series. Here’s the celebration that ensued:
The Orioles had won 14 in a row going into that Series and were a 7-5 Vegas favorite to repeat as champions. In regard to pitching that year, they boasted not two, not three but FOUR 20-game winners: Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson.
But it was Blass who emerged as the pitching star that October, handcuffing an Oriole lineup that included Boog Powell, Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson. In addition to that title clinching effort he also threw a 3-hitter in game 3 that gave the Pirates a lifeline after they had fallen into a two games to nothing hole.
In performing so well in a deciding contest, Blass’s effort should have entered the Pantheon of Game 7 Lore. You know, up there with Willis Reed hobbling out for the Knicks in 1970 or Jack Morris going 10 innings for the Twins in ‘91.
But it isn’t there, for two very good reasons. The first is that the ‘71 Series is best remembered for Roberto Clemente going bananas at the plate. In the seven games he batted .414 and his solo shot in game 7 provided the winning margin in a 2-1 contest. He was named Series MVP, thus taking the spotlight off of Blass’s pair of complete game gems.
The second reason is that Blass’s legacy would come to be marked by something that happened later in his career, something that was completely the opposite of his game 7 excellence. The numbers explain what transpired, here are his stats in 1972 and 1973, when a 31-year old pitcher like him should have been in his prime:
1972: 19-8, 2.49 ERA, 11 CG, 117 K’s, 84 BB’s, 249.2 innings
1973: 3-9, 9.85 ERA, 1 CG, 27 K’s, 84 BB’s, 88.2 innings
Here’s what gives these stats an air of strangeness: Blass was perfectly healthy in 1973. All of a sudden, the guy who carried the Pirate pitching staff on his back just two years before couldn’t throw the ball over the plate.
Thus, the term “Steve Blass Disease” entered the baseball lexicon. The guy tried desperately to figure out the problem, even turning to psychotherapy and transcendental meditation. But after 17 starts at Triple A Charleston in 1974 yielded a 2-8 record an a 9.74 ERA, his career was over.
So over the the last 35 years, Steve Blass’s name hasn’t been invoked in relation to game 7 heroics. No, it only comes up when a guy like Rick Ankiel or Mark Wohlers starts launching it five feet over the catcher’s head.
In these instances, “Looks like he’s got Steve Blass Disease” is the go to refrain for announcers. I would HATE IT if my name became the designation for something with a negative connotation. You know, like if “Pulling a Stansberry” became the default term for being dumped twice by the same chick who may or may not have been a lesbian. Not that I’m saying that ever happened to me…
The rapid declines of other precipitous fallers could be easily explained. Joe Charboneau was physically unable to perform due to injuries, while Russell Cross just wasn’t good enough to make it in the NBA.
But Blass suddenly and inexplicably became unable to do the thing he made his living at. It’s like a mathematician suddenly becoming bewildered by subtraction or Paris Hilton getting an aversion to partying. Imagine if the same thing happened to you.
Of course, Blass had no choice but to get a “real” job, but he stayed active with the Pirates in the 70’s by doing community service work for the club. In 1983 he was hired as part of the Pirate broadcast team for cable TV and then in 1986 he joined the team’s radio broadcast team, a position he’s been in ever since.
Maybe the passage of time has allowed him to regain some of his lost athletic prowess, because at the Pirates annual alumni golf outing at the Greensburg (PA) Country Club last year, he recorded two holes in one in the same round. That’s almost as tough as throwing two complete game wins in the World Series. Almost.