On the day before he is to pitch his second batting practice of spring training, Steve Blass sits in a booth in Trader Jack's restaurant in Bradenton Beach, Fla. and tells a funny story. He has always been good at telling a story. He has original material and the natural timing and proper inflections of a born comic. This story is truly funny, if slightly risqu�, and he tells it while absent-mindedly peeling a shrimp and dipping it in red sauce. He raises the shrimp to his mouth and pauses an appropriate beat, but he delivers the punch line without animation. Something is distracting him. He returns the uneaten shrimp to his plate. "Jeez, it's such a big thing, now," he says. "It never leaves me. No matter what I'm doing it never goes very far away. Just sitting here, I'm getting totally psyched up about it already. Before, I'd just go out and do it. I never thought about it. It's only batting practice. I used to joke around with the hitters, scream things at them, you know, agitate a little. But now...." His shoulders sag noticeably, and he shakes his head once. "I never struggled at pitching before. I mean, I was never uncertain about whether or not I wanted to walk out to the mound. Now, it scares me. Scares hell out of me. You have no idea how frustrating it is. You don't know where you're going to throw the ball. You're afraid you might hurt someone. You know you're embarrassing yourself but you can't do anything about it. You're helpless. Totally afraid and helpless...."
Steve Blass has always been one of those fidgety pitchers who seem continually to be touching some part of themselves or their uniforms as if to reassure themselves that they exist, there, on a major league mound, in a major league stadium, before thousands of major league fans. Reassured, he takes the sign from his catcher and begins his pump. He raises both hands overhead, and suddenly his right leg, the one in contact with the rubber, begins to wobble uncontrollably. From a distance that leg looks as if it has the consistency of an overcooked strand of spaghetti. Up close, it looks as if that leg is expressing an urge to flee. But Blass resists, keeps his right foot anchored to the rubber and delivers the pitch.
During most of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Blass was able to make his pitches cut some part of the plate. From 1966 to 1972 he was one of the premier control pitchers in the major leagues. He averaged a little more than two bases on balls per game. His control, keen intelligence and more than adequate pitching repertoire earned him 95 victories during that time. He won 18 games in 1968, 16 games in '69, 15 games in '71 and 19 games in '72. Still, his modest nature and unflamboyant success (he has never won 20 games in a season) left him relatively anonymous to the baseball public until, in the fall of 1971, he became a World Series hero. With the Pirates trailing the Baltimore Orioles two games to none, Blass pitched a three-hitter for his team's first victory. The Pirates eventually evened the Series at three games apiece, and Danny Murtaugh, their manager, nominated Blass to pitch the seventh and deciding game on a Sunday afternoon in Baltimore.
The night before the game Blass went out to dinner with a few friends. He barely picked at his food, rose before dessert and said he was going back to his hotel room. "I have a date with the wallpaper," he said. "I have to count all the flowers." He was awake until early in the morning. He sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the flowered wallpaper, and contemplated his pitching strategy for the most important game of his career. That afternoon he pitched a four-hitter and brought the Pirates their first World Series title in 11 years. As always, he fidgeted and twitched on the mound in full view of the more than 53,000 fans at Memorial Stadium and the millions more watching the game on television. To those who had never before seen Blass pitch, he must have looked like a puppet being jerked about by an unseen hand, or maybe just a scared young boy trying desperately to keep from coming apart in the face of such pressures. Yet he weathered the pressures in such a heroic manner that afterward, in the Pirates' locker room, he was besieged by reporters, cameras, flashbulbs and microphones. Naked but for a towel wrapped around his waist, he confronted the reporters with boyish exuberance, "imagine!" he said. "Me! A skinny kid from Falls Village, Connecticut! A World Series hero!" He seemed truly amazed. At 29, with a slight build and clear blue eyes, he did look more like a young boy than a 12-year baseball professional. (He still does. His body amazes him, he says. He has never suffered a sore arm, aching back, or ripped muscles, while younger men—his teammate Dock Ellis, for instance—seem unable to get through a season without an injury.)
The reporters smiled at his exuberance, dismissing it as the worldly charm of a mature man who had crisscrossed the continent in jumbo jets, who was making a salary of more than $70,000 a season, who had just won two superbly pitched games in one of the most pressure-packed of World Series, and who was definitely not just "a skinny kid" from a quaint little northern Connecticut town that contained two banks, a village inn, a few pre-Revolutionary War homes, a selectman named Miles Blodgett and 931 people, all of whom knew Steve Blass personally. But to Blass it did not matter how those reporters saw him; it mattered only how he saw himself.
"I'm as happy just being here," he said in the spring. "I mean, why me? There are plenty of pitchers with better stuff than me and they're not in the majors. I've always felt I owed the Pirates for letting me pitch. I really have great affection for the organization. For some reason they always treated me as a fair-haired boy. Would you believe I'm making $90,000 a season and I never won 20 games in a season?" He shakes his head in disbelief. "Really, it amazes me! My success amazes me."
Bolstered by the '71 Series, Blass had a superb season in 1972. He won 19 games for his new manager, Bill Virdon, and lost only eight. He had an ERA of 2.48 while walking only 84 batters in 250 innings. He won a game against the Cincinnati Reds in the National League playoffs, and was chosen by Virdon to start the deciding game of that series. Blass pitched seven creditable innings before he was relieved in a game the Reds eventually won on a wild pitch in the ninth inning.
And then in 1973 Steve Blass won three games. He lost nine. He walked 84 batters in 89 innings and posted one of the highest ERAs among major league pitchers—9.81. By July, Virdon seldom used him. By September, when the Bucs were fighting for the pennant, Virdon told reporters he would no longer risk pitching Steve Blass in such important ball games. "He probably won't pitch for the remainder of the season," said Virdon. When asked by reporters why he didn't put Blass on the disabled list, Virdon said, "There's nothing physically wrong with him."
"If I was Virdon I wouldn't have used me, either," Blass says. "I was totally ineffective and wild. He gave me more chances than I had a right to expect. He was fighting for a pennant, and I couldn't even hit the catcher. I didn't get hit myself all year. How could I? I was throwing the ball behind batters. I started the season poorly, but thought nothing of it. I had had poor starts before—I was 2-8 one year—and had always been able to turn them around.
"But instead of snapping out of it, I got progressively worse. After 13 starts I was absolutely inefficient. It was a mechanical thing at first. My motion was uncoordinated. I was hurrying my pitches. My body was moving faster toward the plate than my arm, and to compensate, my arm began rushing to catch up. The result was I was throwing pitches high and outside to right-handed batters and behind the heads of lefthanders. After a while, I knew what was wrong but I couldn't correct it. It was just a pitcher's slump; I should have been able to snap out of it sooner than I did. Maybe I wasn't analytical enough. I don't like to break things down too much. I can handle things as long as they're going along smoothly."