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This is a big mistake, I think to myself at a recent reunion of the 1971 World Series champion Pirates. Dave Giusti is about to take a swing at me.
And the evening started with such promise. I introduced myself to the gracious and humble Steve Blass, who pitched Pittsburgh to two critical wins in that Series and is now the color commentator on Pirates TV and radio broadcasts.
There are many reasons to admire Blass and one reason to resent him. Playing in a Pirates alumni golf outing two years ago, he had two holes in one in the same round at the Greensburg (Pa.) Country Club. "They made me an honorary member," he recalls. "They tell me the odds of doing that are 67 million to one."
The odds were stacked, though not quite so steeply, against the Bucs going into the 1971 Fall Classic. Vegas had installed the Orioles as 7-to-5 favorites over the National League champions, and why not? True, Pittsburgh's lineup bristled with big bats—Al Oliver, Bob Robertson, Manny Sanguillen, Willie Stargell and the magisterial Roberto Clemente. But in addition to bringing a murderers' row of their own—Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, Merv Rettenmund—the O's boasted a pitching rotation for the ages. Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, Pat Dobson and future underwear model Jim Palmer had each won at least 20 games, a feat no major league team has duplicated since.
And yet it was Blass who ended up bounding into the waiting arms of Robertson, his burly first baseman, in the moments after Pittsburgh's Game 7 victory in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Clemente was voted the outstanding player, having batted .414 and electrified onlookers with his jaw-dropping throws from rightfield. But Blass's ungainly leap became the iconic image of that Series.
So it is slightly surreal to find myself facing a 69-year-old Blass in a ballroom at the Holiday Inn in Moon Township, Pa., on May 21, while over his shoulder, on a large screen, the 29-year-old version reprises that jump for joy. Blass pays no attention to the video; he is busy introducing me to the intense Dave Giusti, who pitched 10 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in the '71 postseason. But Blass doesn't want to talk about that. He wants to explain why it's Giusti's fault that his driveway is asphalt, rather than concrete.
During the 1972 season Blass had gotten some estimates on a concrete driveway—"A nice design, maybe some engraving. But then," he says, inclining his head toward Giusti, "he threw that pitch to Bench." Reds catcher Johnny Bench hit the game-tying home run off Giusti in the ninth inning of the fifth and deciding game of the '72 NLCS, which Pittsburgh would lose shortly thereafter. "So," Blass concludes, "we had to go back to just having the driveway repaved."
"You know what?" says Giusti. "You should've finished the damn game."
I confess to Giusti that it's a bit of a trip to see him laughing and smiling. "I'm accustomed to thinking of you on the mound, looking in toward the hitter like an assassin."
"An assassin?" he bellows. Then, louder: "An ASSASSIN?" Heads turn. The reunion is 20 minutes old, and I've managed to outrage one of the guests of honor.