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A BOY AND HIS BUCS
AUSTIN MURPHY
July 04, 2011
FORTY YEARS AFTER HE WORSHIPPED THE 1971 WORLD CHAMPION PIRATES AS AN 11-YEAR-OLD, A WRITER RETURNS TO PITTSBURGH TO MEET HIS CHILDHOOD IDOLS AND RELIVE A MAGICAL SEASON
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July 04, 2011

A Boy And His Bucs

FORTY YEARS AFTER HE WORSHIPPED THE 1971 WORLD CHAMPION PIRATES AS AN 11-YEAR-OLD, A WRITER RETURNS TO PITTSBURGH TO MEET HIS CHILDHOOD IDOLS AND RELIVE A MAGICAL SEASON

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Except Giusti isn't outraged; that's just how he makes conversation. "He's very assertive," says Blass. Giusti approaches dialogue the way he approached hitters: with aggression. Once you get past the breakers, as it were, the sailing is smoother. I mention to Giusti that for a long time I had an 8-by-12 glossy print of him—part of a set put out by the oil company ARCO in the early '70s. "Sure, I remember those," he says.

I spare him the details, that my seven siblings and I got our glossies from Wateska's ARCO at the bottom of Kittanning Pike in Sharpsburg, Pa.—a service station whose lavatory one of my younger brothers was once accused of setting on fire. (The charge was never proved.) My father worked for U.S. Steel; we moved 10 times while I was growing up. In 1969 we came from Denver to a pleasant cul-de-sac in O'Hara Township, a suburb about eight miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Our neighbors were kind enough not to openly celebrate when we moved to Louisville five years later.

My mother, the saintly Patricia Reeves Murphy, had seven children in eight years. (Amy, clearly an accident, arrived four years later.) Pat did her best, but we had numbers on her. Unsupervised, prone to petty vandalism and shoplifting, we roamed the township like some lost tribe of bespectacled Visigoths. (Five of us required corrective lenses. We were equipped, brother and sister alike, with the same durable, dark plastic frames later made famous by the Hanson brothers.)

When a half dozen of us asked to attend a Pirates game, Pat was only too pleased to hand us each bus fare, plus the two dollars it would take to get us into the cheap seats at gleaming new Three Rivers Stadium. We went to at least 15 Pirates home games during the 1971 season. If I wasn't at the ballpark, I tuned my tiny transistor radio to KDKA and drank in the inimitable call of Bob (the Gunner) Prince and his straight man, Nellie King.

After spending the first few innings in the yellow seats above rightfield, watching Clemente prowl his turf, we'd work our way down to the loge level, cadging ticket stubs from businessmen leaving early. We'd then pass those stubs through a fence to other siblings. By the seventh-inning stretch we were usually ensconced in primo seats along one of the baselines.

This was our team, in a way that no team has been since. We rejoiced with Blass in '71; cried a year later, when, after Bench took Giusti deep, Bob Moose threw the wild pitch that allowed the Reds to score the pennant-winning run.

And like many others, we were gutted the following New Year's Day when news broke that Clemente had been killed in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico while ferrying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. I was 11 and latched onto the fact that they never found his body, holding out hope that perhaps he swam to safety.

Also at the reunion: the cherubic, white-haired Bill Mazeroski. Best remembered for his walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 1960 Fall Classic, Maz was an elder statesman on the '71 club, graciously sharing the nuances of second base with 23-year-old Dave Cash, who was there to ease him out the door. Bookended between Mazeroski's heroics of '60 and the Stargell- and Dave Parker--led "We Are Family" Bucs who won the '79 World Series, the feats of the '71 Pirates have been overshadowed. Or it always seemed that way to me. And so I talked my editors into letting me fly to Pittsburgh and write this story.

In my 28 years in this racket I've interviewed one future, one current and two former U.S. presidents. Yet I've seldom been more nervous than the moment I parked the rental car and walked toward the hotel where a bunch of my childhood heroes had gathered. It's a risky business, looping back to your old idols. Most athletes don't ask to be put on pedestals for the very good reason that they often don't belong on them. I knew that going in. After registering at a desk in the foyer, I affixed my nametag to my blazer and strode into the ballroom, into the distant past, reminding myself: Don't get your hopes up.

What I found—after finding the bar—was a marked absence of misanthropy or ego; an atmosphere of affection and mutual respect. As is often the way among athletes, that affection takes the form of well-intentioned verbal abuse. When he is finished blaming Giusti for his driveway, Blass turns his attention to Richie Hebner, the third baseman who'd supplemented his income in the off-season by digging graves. Hebner's moved up in the world, Blass informs me: "Now he's driving the buggy."

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