Finding joy in life cured his Steve Blass Disease

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The voice of Steve Blass has been a sound of summer in Pittsburgh for more than a quarter-century. Few are better at sharing a sense of joy in the commonplace.

The longtime Pirates color man can do that so effortlessly it belies his most uncommon journey, which he shares in his autobiography, "A Pirate for Life.''

I'd been curious about Blass' book since it came out this spring, because the story of his precipitous fall from an All-Star pitcher in 1972 to a can't-find-home-plate-with-a-flashlight has-been the following summer is baseball legend. The same sudden loss of control has afflicted other pitchers since, but it's always called "Steve Blass Disease.''

That's not the legacy he dreamed about as a baseball-crazy boy growing up in the Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut, but Blass, 70, wears the battle scar with grace. Stacy Smith and I talked with him on "KD/PG Sunday Edition,'' which airs this Sunday morning at 8:30.

Others folks -- actors, writers, salespeople, musicians -- can lose their mojo just as quickly as an athlete, but it's a bit different in baseball's pitiless spotlight. This is the team game where players take turns, and so every failure can be cruelly quantified in a historic ledger.

It's "designed to break your heart,'' the late baseball commissioner and scholar A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote. "The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone.''

No one knows that better than Blass, and his story of not just staring into the abyss, but falling into it, is the first chapter of his book.

"If I hadn't gone through those two years, I never would have written a book,'' he said.

Others who achieved unwanted baseball fame did not emerge with Blass's joie de vivre. Blass mentioned Donnie Moore, the California Angels relief pitcher who gave up a home run with his team one strike away from going to the 1986 World Series. Hometown fans turned on him, and Moore killed himself less than three years later.

Pirates fans didn't boo Blass as he struggled, but the silent stands bespoke something harder for him to take: pity. There were nights Blass cried in his Upper St. Clair backyard, but, he wrote, "I never lost track of how good I had it.''

When I mentioned that his fears at the time might also have been about losing his livelihood as the family breadwinner, this son of a plumber dismissed that.

"My dad always said, 'If you're not afraid to work, you'll always eat.' ''

What scared him in 1973 and '74 was not retirement. What scared him was "losing the joy of the game.''

Going back over the old wounds in long talks with his co-writer, Erik Sherman, was therapeutic for him and his wife, Karen, who'll celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary Oct. 5. Blass said he thought he was protecting his family during his terrible two years by "trying to leave it at the ballpark,'' but he now realizes dialogue would have helped his wife and two sons more. The book's first chapter has belatedly brought them better understanding.

The book's language is saltier than in the broadcasts he's been making for 27 summers, but the familiar voice is on every page. Sure, some of these are retold tales, but who else could write that his father slipped past security and jumped 10 feet from the Three Rivers Stadium dugout roof to join his son being interviewed on the field after winning the third game of the 1971 World Series?

Blass said the interviewer, Tony Kubek, sent his father a signed photo of that father-son hug and wrote, "Thanks for one of the warmest moments I've ever seen in the game of baseball.''

Blass says he inherited his joy of life from his father.

"What's better than to put a smile on someone's face and make him laugh?" he asked.

Blass will try to do just that when he's signing books at the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 7, or at the Northern Tier Regional Library in Richland at 6:30 p.m. July 17. But his biggest smile came when he told me he'd be signing books at the old library in Falls Village, Conn., on Oct. 6.

It's the same building where he went to first grade and daydreamed about being a ballplayer.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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