Steve Blass

Steve Blass

May 18, 1942
165 lbs
Major League Debut:
5-10-1964 with PIT

He is one of the great mysteries in major league history.  A good control pitcher, who was 100-67 and had walked only 1.9 batters per nine innings in his career coming off his finest campaign ever, all of the sudden losing control of pitches.  Steve Blass during his career was one of the classiest players who ever put on the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he completely lost his control in 1973 and sadly was gone from the game two years later.  He used every ounce of that class, to hold up strongly while the baseball world looked on him trying to solve the mystery of what ever happened to Steve Blass.
So compelling and confusing was the Blass situation that his loss of control has since been referred to as Steve Blass disease.  When a pitcher, such as Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel or even an infielder like Chuck Knoblach, suddenly lose control of their throws, they are certainly said to have acquired the dreaded Blass disease.  So popular was the malady that it even was brought up in the early 90’s TV show Northern Exposure.
While I’m sure Blass sometimes wishes it would all go away, he deals with it openly and at times has tried to help others who are going through it.
Although many have suffered the difficulty in the past, none were so confusing and so complete as what Blass went through.  Steve had pinpoint control, took advantage of the hitter’s weaknesses and finished the 1972 season with a career .598 winning percentage, then somehow the control disappeared and never would come back. Of course while it is those last awful moments that most baseball fans remember about the Connecticut native, the first eight years of his career, was every bit as wonderful as the last 2 were tragic.
He was signed by the Pirates out of High School in 1960.  Steve received an offer from the Cleveland Indians for a $2,500 bonus but they wanted him to wait until the next spring training to start.  Pittsburgh offered $4,000 and put him in their minor leagues immediately.  It didn’t hurt that his High School coach, Ed Kirby, also doubled as a part time scout for the club.
Steve stuck in the minor for 5 years and was helped a lot by the teams roving minor league pitching coach Don Osborne.  “ He helped me with guidance in terms of how to handle pro ball.  He preached the simplicity of pitching because as a youngster you try to complicate things.  He helped me to trust my stuff, get the ball over the plate and find out if your good enough” Blass stated.
Finally in 1964, Steve got the call to the show and got his first opportunity to start on May 18th in Dodger Stadium against hall of fame hurler Don Drysdale.  He overcame the odds and beat LA 4-2 for his first major league win.  “ It was a dream come true.  I had been around several days and had pitched a time or two in relief.  Drysdale was 6-1 at the time and I looked up at the scoreboard and he was leading the league in just about everything.  What I remember about the game was Leo Durocher was their third base coach at the time and was screaming at me, using language I had never experienced before; he was trying to rattle me.  It certainly ended up being a wonderful thrill”.
The 22-year-old hurler, finished his rookie campaign at 5-8 with a 4.04 ERA, he would not make the club the following season as he was sent back down to the minor leagues again.  When he returned in 1966, Blass wanted to make sure it was for good. “Harry Walker sent me down in 1965.  It was important for me to prove I could stay this time.”
Stay he certainly did.  Steve won double digits for the team in ’66 going 11-7 before slipping to 6-8 the following year despite the fact his ERA went down from .387 to 3.55.  As tough as 1967 was, 1968 would prove to be otherwise as Blass moved from the ranks of average starter, to the Ace of the staff.  Steve went 18-6 that year, leading the National league in winning percentage with a .750 mark.  His miniscule 2.12 ERA, which was a career low, placed him 5th in the senior circuit.  During the year, Blass not only tossed three consecutive shutouts, but won 9 games in a row.
In 1969, Blass remained at the head of the game with a 16-10 mark, although his ERA more than doubled to 4.46.  He righted the ship a little in 1970 lowering it to 3.52 despite his losing 10-12 record; it was just a prelude to two consecutive great campaigns enjoyed by the Connecticut native.
Blass led the league in shutouts in 1971 with 5, to go with his 15-8 record and 2.85 ERA.  While he had a great season, it was his pitching in the post-season that Blass will always be noted for.  After getting roughed up in game 1 of the NLCS, Blass had to rebound if he wanted to be successful in the series. “I got my brains beat out (in the NLCS) and me confidence was a little eroded.  This was my first post-season performance (he didn’t pitch in the 1970 NLCS) and I thought I had to be different in the post season, better than I was in the regular season.  I tried to overpower hitters and that wasn’t my game.  By game 3 of the World Series, I learned my lesson, be yourself and go with what got you there”.
The lesson Blass learned paid off well for the club as he tossed a 3 hitter in game three and stopped the Orioles momentum, giving the Pirates their first win of the series 5-1.
Eventually, Pittsburgh tied things up at three, setting the table for the all-decisive seventh game.  Danny Murtaugh chose Blass to be his starter for this all-important of games and early on, it looked like it was not going to be the 29year old hurlers day as he was a little wild in the first inning.  It was at that point when the sly manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver, decided he was going to put the nail in the coffin by trying to send Steve over the edge.  He came out complaining that Blass was violating rule 801.  Rule 801 simply states that the pitcher must throw from in front of the rubber and he said Steve was throwing from the side.
Instead of rattling the young pitcher, it calmed Blass down and allowed him to get into a groove.  “I thank Earl every time I see him.  … In the first inning I was all over the place until Earl came out and it calmed me down with his nonsense.  As the game went on I got settled into the contest”.
Blass did settle down, giving up only a single run in the bottom of the eighth, it was a moment Steve wanted to always remember. “I took a moment in the bottom of the seventh after I warmed up and before the first pitch. I took the baseball and went to the back of the mound to take in the whole scene.  You don’t know if you’ll ever get back again and I wanted to soak in the atmosphere and have an image to bring up whenever I need it. I made everyone wait until I soaked in my mental image, then we went back to work”
Finally Steve mowed down the Orioles in the bottom of the ninth and went wild off the mound leaping into first baseman Bobby Robertson’s arms as the club had won the 1971 World Championship.  “Every kid that plays ball in the back yard dreams about the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series and what are you going to do (when you win).  I was so caught up in the ball game.  You don’t think about it until the last out, then the dam breaks and you go berserk and that’s all right.
After his impressive run in the fall classic, Blass came into 1972 and established himself as the undisputed ace of the staff.  He went 19-8, denied a 20th win when he was hit by a John Milner line drive, with a 2.49 ERA.  He finished second in the Cy Young Voting and seemed like he was just beginning the peak of his career.  It unfortunately was just about the end.
Steve plain and simple lost it.  Lost the ability to throw strikes, lost the ability to get out.  In essence he forgot how to pitch.  The Connecticut native would be fine in warm-ups, but when he got into the game he was horrid.  He started 3-4 in 1973 and was sent to the pen to see if he could correct the problem, he did not.
 There was no injury, nothing that any body could find and Blass desperately served everywhere for the elusive answer that would never come.  Steve came into a game on July 13th with the team down 8-3.  He gave up 7 runs, 5 hits, 6 walks and 2 wild pitches in 1 2/3 of an inning; he was embarrassed not knowing what he was doing.   He tried Hypnosis, visualization, psychotherapy, but nothing worked.  He ended the year 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA and 84 walks in 88 innings, the same number that he threw in 249 2/3 innings the year before.
He tries to correct things the following year and walked 25 men in 14 innings in spring training then 103 in 61 innings at the clubs AAA team in Charleston.  Blass pitched in one major league game that year giving up 5 hits, 7walks and 5 earned runs in 5 innings.
Finally after a bad outing in 1975 spring training, the team released Steve and his career was over.  He said the toughest thing he had to do in his major league career was telling his teammates it was over.
Blass sold class rings after he retired and was a PR man for a beer distributor.  Eventually he got a job as a color man for the Bucs in 1983 and has become one of the best in the business since.
They say adversity builds character.  With everything Steve has had to overcome and the class he chose to display in the wake of his unfortunate situation, there may be no other person with more character in Pirate history than the man from Canaan, Connecticut.

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