- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Stargell did not forget it, although he was not the biggest star on the Encinal high team. That was Tommy Harper, later an outfielder with Cincinnati and six other major league teams. "He was all-everything in every sport," says Stargell. "I could hit, but I was unpolished."
He also suffered from the bad knees that would require surgery in the mid-1960s. And at Santa Rosa Junior College he fractured a pelvic bone when his spikes caught in the grass while he was practicing sliding. Doctors advised him to give up all competitive athletics. Another break could cripple him for life, he was told.
"That was in 1958," says Stargell. "That year I signed with the Pirates. You know, I haven't thought about that injury in years. Wouldn't it be something, wouldn't it be a story if I had to quit after all these years over something that happened 20 years ago."
Stargell has rarely played free of pain since, but his phenomenal resourcefulness has sustained him. In 1977 he began the season with an inner-ear ailment and ended it prematurely, in July, after playing in only 63 games, with a pinched nerve in his left elbow, an injury suffered while breaking up a fight on the field. The next year he hit 28 homers and drove in 97 runs to win the National League's Comeback Player of the Year award. True to his nature, it was an affliction suffered by someone close to him that most affected his performance on the field. In late May of 1976 his wife, Dolores, collapsed at home, complaining of a pain in her head. Stargell rushed her to the hospital, where she underwent immediate surgery for both a blood clot and an aneurism in her brain. He shudders at the memory, saying, "If the team had been on the road, she'd be dead." Dolores recovered, but the anxiety Stargell experienced caused him to lose his impenetrable concentration. He finished the season hitting only .257 with 20 homers.
Stargell holds Pirate career records for homers (461) and runs batted in (1,476). His totals would be even higher had he not played his first 7½ seasons in Forbes Field, with its 400-foot-plus power alleys. In the 61½-year history of that capacious park, only 18 home runs were hit onto its right-field roof or over it into Panther Hollow. Stargell hit seven of them. He is the only man to hit a ball completely out of Dodger Stadium, a feat he has accomplished twice. He has hit four home runs into the third-tier yellow seats at Three Rivers, the only batter to reach that level in rightfield. Supposedly on the wane in 1979, he had 32 homers and drove in 82 runs. In the Championship Series with Cincinnati, he hit .455 with two homers and six RBIs and was named the playoffs MVP. He had 12 hits in the World Series, seven for extra bases, including three more homers, and was again named the Most Valuable Player. To complete the sweep—almost—he was elected co-MVP of the National League with the Cardinals' Keith Hernandez, an honor bestowed as much for his leadership as for his slugging. "He's our stabilizer," his teammate, the illustrious Dave Parker, has said. "And for me, my baseball father."
Stargell's windmill practice swings have become a part of Pittsburgh lore. And so has his enthusiasm for the game and for his teammates. He speaks of them as if they were eccentric relatives: "We got Pancho Villa out there. That's [Enrique] Romo. And [Phil] Garner and Parker. My, the way they go at each other. But you better not talk about either of them to the other. I tell you, a visitor to our clubhouse might be inclined to call the police. You hear music from the hills of West Virginia or, maybe, Panama, rhythm and blues, oldies but goodies, Sister Sledge, naturally. We've got $6,000 worth of stereo equipment. We have the finest hitting coach in baseball—Bob Skinner. And all our pitchers respect Harvey Haddix. [Coach] Al Monchak is Sarge to the infielders. The outfielders pay him no attention. We got everything going in our clubhouse. We win together, lose together. We got the best cardplayer in the world—Grant Jackson. You cannot play casino with that man. Then we got Jim Bibby. His hands are too big for baseball. Jim Rooker, he'll walk in the clubhouse with wild meat dishes. That's probably why we win—we eat so good. Bert Blyleven. He's his crazy self. I'll go out to talk to him during a game and he'll say, 'Get off my damn mound!' His damn mound! Parker, he should have been a comedian, really. We got neighborhoods right in our dugout—the ghetto, where I sit; Park Avenue; Spanish Harlem; and then there's just the low-rent district. Kent Tekulve sits there."
Stargell pauses, laughing at the wonder of so many beloved characters being in one place. "You know, if you respect this game and do what you're supposed to do, it's very rewarding. But if you take it for granted, it will embarrass you. You have to respect whatever you do. Give it up? Sure, I'll have to and I'll know when the time comes." He smiles. "But no one can take away the memories."
Bradshaw was asked, too, about retirement. "I like to think that when I retire, I'll say to myself, 'Gosh, if I could just have one more year, I know I'll get better.' "
Bradshaw and Stargell. Two extraordinary athletes. Proud men with a sense of dignity about their special occupations. Durable and courageous, enthusiastic always. Leaders, above all else. Sportsmen of the Year. And, the final tribute, Pittsburgh guys.