Ron Cook: Steve Blass has utmost hope for Pedro Alvarez



Steve Blass, who once wrote a book called "A Pirate For Life," has a few wishes for his favorite ballclub. You probably can guess most. A division title. A National League pennant. A World Series championship ...

But there is one more.

"I sure hope Pedro doesn't have what I did," Blass was saying last week, sipping a cold adult beverage on the back patio of his Upper St. Clair home. "I'm hoping it's just a slump and that he'll come out of it. I don't want him to have to go through what I did. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

 

Numbers of note regarding Pedro Alvarez's 21 errors:

8 Of the runners who reached base as a result of his errors came around to score.

4 Of the eight games in which an Alvarez error cost the Pirates a run they ended up losing by one run.

 

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez had a baseball-worst 21 errors going into Saturday night's game against the Colorado Rockies, 18 on wild throws. His season has been the damnedest thing. Alvarez will make five perfect throws in a row to first base and then throw the next ball 20 rows into the stands. He has been erratic enough that manager Clint Hurdle replaces him for defensive purposes late in games.

It's fair to think no one feels Alvarez's pain quite the way Blass does. Blass hasn't been a Pirates broadcaster forever, although it seems that way. In 1971, he was a World Series hero for the Pirates against the Baltimore Orioles, pitching complete games to win Game 3, 5-1, on a three-hitter, and Game 7, 2-1, with a four-hitter. You have seen the photograph of him leaping into the arms of Pirates first baseman Bob Robertson after the final out of Game 7, right? It's one of the most iconic images in Pittsburgh sports history. In 1972, Blass made his first National League All-Star team, won 19 games and finished second to Steve Carlton in the Cy Young voting. The baseball world was his. "It was like I was in this warm, wonderful bubble where everything I did was right. Every pitch I threw was right there." That only made Blass' long, hard fall that much more brutal. By spring 1975, he was out of baseball after suddenly, mysteriously, inexplicably being unable to throw a strike. He joked in his book that people put a name on his ailment. Steve Blass Disease. But there was nothing funny about it then and there's nothing funny about it now as he watches Alvarez struggle at times to make a simple throw across the infield.

"Do you know how humiliating and embarrassing it is to go through that?" Blass asked. "The worst thing for any professional athlete is to be embarrassed ...

"I'd love to sit down and talk to Pedro about it. But that has to be his call. I would never cross the line and go to him and just start offering advice. That's not my place. I'm not sure what advice I could give anyone, anyway. I never did figure it out."

Blass pointed to a spot in his backyard. "You don't know how many nights I came home and sat right there, crying like a baby at 2 or 3 in the morning, tears rolling down my face. I knew if I didn't get it right, I wasn't going to be a Pirate anymore."

The team tried everything to help Blass. It moved him to the bullpen in 1973, hoping he would pitch better if he didn't have time to, as he put it, "outthink" himself. It sent him back to the minors in 1974. Neither move worked.

Blass tried everything to help himself. "I pitched from my knees. I pitched from second base. I pitched from 2 feet in front of the plate. You think it's hilarious now, but I'm serious." Blass saw a hypnotist and a psychologist and tried transcendental meditation. None of that worked, either.

Fans sent Blass letters of support, nearly 100 a week. Many offered suggestions. "I remember one came from an avid hunter in Virginia," Blass said. "He said that whenever his aim was off, it was because his underwear was too tight. I had a good laugh at that letter and showed it all around the clubhouse to the guys. Then, I went out and bought some loose underwear."

You don't have to ask.

That also didn't work.

The end for Blass came in a spring-training game against the Chicago White Sox in 1975. He walked eight batters in two-plus innings. Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh knew it was over for Blass. In an incredible show of support, he was ejected by the home-plate umpire for arguing balls and strikes even though he knew the pitches weren't close. Blass also knew it was over. He wasn't going to be humiliated and embarrassed on a ballfield again.

"I still kept telling myself it might click for me again even after I retired," Blass said. "I remember giving a clinic at Plum High School. I grabbed a catcher and waited for everyone to leave and went to the mound ... Nothing. More of the same."

Blass predicted Alvarez's story will have a much happier ending. He said that's not just because Alvarez has good hands and good range and is "an above-average defensive third baseman if not for this throwing thing." He said it goes deeper than that. "I think Pedro is mentally tough enough to get through this. He's such a lightning rod, so polarizing. People seem to like him or hate him. I like the way he's handled that. That's one of the reasons I'm rooting for him."

Blass also has a selfish reason or two. He hurts each time one of Alvarez's throws goes wild. It brings back such horrible memories.

"I sleep OK now, though," Blass said. "They could put me in a box tomorrow and I wouldn't have any complaints. I got to live all of my dreams. Heaven help me if it would have happened to me when I was 21, before I got to the big leagues."

Blass said he will end up in that box one day, knowing nothing more about the cause of "Steve Blass Disease" than that it wasn't caused by tight underwear. But a doctor told him something a few years ago that stuck with him. "He said it wasn't physical, that there was nothing wrong with my arm. He said it was simple, that there was a disconnect between my brain and my arm. ... I've kept that in mind ever since. Now, I'll hit a bad golf shot and say, 'There's that damn disconnect thing again!' "

You should have seen Blass laugh. It sure beat the heck out of crying.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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