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 risqué, 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."
Blass became so emotionally distraught that he was almost relieved to learn that Virdon would no longer use him. It was a burden off his shoulders. He would no longer have to walk out to the mound and embarrass himself.
"You don't understand how immense a frustration I felt," he says. "A sore arm is tangible. I can understand that. There's a reason. But what was happening to me...I didn't understand that."
Before the season ended Virdon was fired and replaced with Murtaugh, a wily old Irishman who has managed to convince the Pirate organization men that he is their messiah. Hoping to rebuild Blass' confidence, Murtaugh announced that he would start him in a game. Blass was terrified.
"It was in Chicago," he says. "Six weeks before, the last time I pitched, I walked five batters in 1‚Öî innings. I roamed the streets of Chicago until 5:30 in the morning. Chicago isn't too much fun to walk around at any time. I tried to analyze what was wrong with my motion. I broke it down to the slightest detail, tried to remember how to put my foot on the rubber, take my sign, go into my pump, and so on, and the next day it worked. I didn't win the game, but I only gave up two hits in five innings. The next game I pitched I went through the same routine, and again I pitched well. It was just like starting all over again. I had to use all my concentration on how to throw the ball properly. I couldn't even begin to think about outsmarting the hitters. Before, I'd always had to concentrate on outsmarting the hitters because I didn't have the stuff to overpower them."
"That's what's wrong with Steve," says Don Osborn, who returned as the Pirates' pitching coach this spring after a year's hiatus. "He has better stuff than most pitchers, but he doesn't believe it."
After the '73 season Blass went to the Florida Winter Instructional League (primarily a postseason training ground for minor league prospects) to see if he could sustain his late-season success. He pitched creditably twice there under the watchful eyes of Osborn and Murtaugh. The manager told him, "Go on home, Steve. You're back where you used to be." Murtaugh, who considers himself a master psychologist, did not bother to remind Blass that his performances in the FWIL were against minor league batters. The confidence he was trying to foster may have been based on a false premise.
"I needed something positive to get me through the winter," says Blass, "and those games helped. My wife and I spent most of the winter talking about what had gone wrong during the season. We'd seen what happened to some guys who went through years like that. It changed their whole personalities. We were pleased that it hadn't changed me much. But two years in a row like that...I don't know. That might change me. Baseball wouldn't be fun then. I think I'd just quit. But I got through the season without any visible scars. Of course, I wasn't as easygoing as I used to be. It's hard to be a free spirit when you're totally helpless. I used to kid around a lot with the guys, too. But until I start making a contribution to the club again, I don't feel I have the license."
Ever since he arrived in Pittsburgh, Blass has been the resident humorist on a relatively humorless club. During the '73 disasters, when a reporter asked him if he felt he was being punished for his transgressions, Blass replied, "No. If God wanted to punish me for my sins He would have zapped me four years ago."
On the rare occasions when he offends someone—never intentionally—he is quick to make amends. "One year I found an old German World War I helmet," he says. "I used to wear it in the locker room to make the guys laugh. Dick Young [sports columnist for the New York Daily News] got wind of it and wrote a scathing column about me. He said I was mocking a war thousands of American soldiers died fighting in. Jeez, I couldn't believe anyone could take it that seriously. Still, out of deference to Dick I got rid of the helmet."
Steve Blass wears glasses, old Hush Puppies and short-sleeved shirts with tiny button-down collars. In a way he resembles Woody Allen. Like Allen he is forever mocking his success and himself, as if secretly he distrusts it all. He can find in himself no basis for it, for having his talent. He is an archetypical Allen character who sees himself as insignificant in a world full of significant people. ("Jeez, I was watching Tom Seaver throw the other day. What stuff! He amazes me!") Now that his success is deteriorating, Blass gives the impression that he feels he is losing things he had possessed fraudulently. Sooner or later, he had always expected to be exposed.
Before taking the mound to pitch his second batting practice ("He was terrible the first time," says Osborn), Blass said, "I'll find out down here how solid my foundation is." It was a freezing, windy day at the Pirates' complex in Bradenton as he began to throw. He threw to the same batter for 10 minutes. At one point he threw eight straight balls, some in the dirt on the outside corner of the plate, some over his catcher's head and one that hit the batter, a lefthander, in the shoulder. On the mound he fidgeted and sweated and tried to swallow, and then he threw a pitch two feet outside. "He's fighting himself again," said Osborn from behind the batting cage.
When Blass walked off the mound, dejected, Danny Murtaugh called over to him. "Attaboy, Steve. You looked pretty good. You were right around the plate. I don't see how you pitchers can throw today, it's so cold." Blass nodded and walked out to left field to shag fly balls.
A week later Steve Blass pitched in his first exhibition game of the spring. In three innings he walked five batters, hit two, threw one wild pitch and surrendered four earned runs. Of the 17 batters he faced, 12 reached base. Four outs were recorded on double plays. Catcher Manny Sanguillen threw out one runner trying to steal, and another runner was cut down at the plate on a wild pitch that Blass had fired over Sanguillen's head. In his second outing of the spring Blass walked 10 batters in four innings. In the sixth inning he walked five batters and in the seventh he gave up a three-run home run. "It's discouraging," he said. His manager was undaunted, however. Murtaugh told reporters, "I'm afraid the writers will put too much emphasis on how Blass does. There is nothing crucial about Blass' pitching at this time.... I wouldn't want it written that it was a major setback for Blass."
All in all, during spring training Blass pitched 20 innings. He gave up 17 hits and 22 runs. He walked 33 batters, hit 10 and threw seven wild pitches. The road ahead would not be easy.