A pitcher is the only man in baseball who can properly look on the ball as being his instrument, his accomplice. He is the only player who is granted the privilege of making offensive plans, and once the game begins he is (with the catcher) the only on the field who knows what is meant to happen next…The smiling pitcher begins not only with the advantage of holding his fate in his hands, or hand, but with the knowledge that every advantage of physics and psychology seems to be on his side. A great number of surprising and unpleasant things can be done to the ball as it is delivered from the grasp of a two-hundred-pound optimist, and the first of these is simply to transform it into a projectile. –Roger Angell, “On the Ball”
“I had no control over it, nor did I understand it. I would sit in my backyard 2…3…4 o’clock in the morning thinking, ‘My God, what’s happened to me? What is this? Has someone put a curse on me or something?” – Steve Blass, 2012 on This American Life
Roger Angell is considered the best living baseball writer, hands down. He is most notably famous for his New Yorker articles, and his essay “Gone for Good”—the story of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass—is called by some “the best piece that anyone has ever written about baseball or any other sport.”
The story he covers reaches its abyss 40 years ago this very summer. In 1973, the Pittsburgh Pirates had the world ahead of them. 1971 gave them an astonishing Game 7 World Series victory. In 1972 the team had an even better record, finishing first in the National League, but losing out to the Morgan, Rose, Bench, and the rest of the Big Red Machine in the pennant. Steve Blass had become the tenured ace of the squad. You could argue in 1971 that he could have topped Roberto Clemente for the World Series MVP award—he pitched a four-hitter in that famous final game. In ‘72 he had some of the best numbers of his career. Writer Kirk Robinson stated that, “In 1972, if you had to choose any pitcher in the world to start one big game, Steve Blass would have been on your short list.” He was on the All-Star team.
But then the wheels came off. In 1973, his ERA (earned run average) soared from 2.49 to 9.85. That, in short, means that Blass fell from a prospective Cooperstown-level ERA, to a farm team cellar pitcher. In 1973, for every strikeout you could count on from Blass, you could also count on three walks—three bases on balls—in exchange. The year before, it was the reverse ratio. This all happened in less than a year, because somehow, Blass completely lost his juju.
When I say “lost his juju”, I do not mean he was slumping. Pitchers and hitters alike slump for portions of a season, even whole seasons; but there is always the sense you get that the performer is sleeping beneath the surface. You will see this performer glimmer awake—even for a moment—in the way he connects with a foul ball or still manages to hammer in a fastball from time to time. You know the Athlete will be back. No, Blass was completely lost. He became a stranger to the mound, his office, sailing wild pitches nearly to the backstop, walking in runs. If Angell is right, and pitching means having “every offensive advantage” on your side, Blass was somehow counteracting every single advantage he had earned, including the cred he had accumulated in seasons prior. One particular game in Atlanta sticks out for both Angell and Blass. Here’s what Angell says:
Two days later, the roof fell in. The team was still in Atlanta, and Virdon called Blass into the game in the fifth inning, with the Pirates trailing by 8-3. Blass walked the first two men he faced, and gave a stolen base with a wild pitch and a run-scoring single before retiring the side. In the sixth, Blass walked Darrell Evans. He walked Mike Lum, throwing one pitch behind him in the process which allowed Evans to move down to second. Dusty Baker singled, driving in a run. Ralph Garr grounded out. Davey Johnson singled, scoring another run. Marty Perez walked. Pitcher Ron Reed singled, driving in two more runs, and was wild-pitched to second. Johnny Oates walked. Frank Tepedino singled, driving in two runs, and Steve Blass was finally relieved. His totals for one and one-third innings were seven runs, five hits, six bases on balls, and three wild pitches.
Steve Blass, in an interview with Ira Glass last year:
I remember it more than any other game I’ve pitched in my life. It was just the absolute bottom of the pit and I remember after that game we flew to Cincinnati, and I didn’t even go to my hotel room, I just walked the streets of Cincinnati until dawn. It was just one of the awfulest games and awfulest nights I’ve ever had in my life. That game in Atlanta, I knew there was something tragically, tragically wrong here. And I am lost here, and I do not have a clue what I’m doing. I wind up, and there’s kind of this freeze, and there’s no flow and no rhythm. I knew I shouldn’t be out there, but I didn’t want to quit. I wanted to keep going to be totally convinced that it wasn’t there.
It wasn’t there, and it never returned. Before the season was halfway over Blass was unsuccessfully filtered through the minor league farm teams, to the very bottom. By 1974, the next year, he was working for a company that makes championship rings and high school graduation rings. It is not that Blass gave up, or that his teammates or fans lost loyalty for him—he has been a Pirates color commentator for many years—it’s that nothing worked. Says Ira Glass:
Steve Blass tried everything to get out of his abyss. He tried pitching from his knees, he tried pitching from second base, he tried pitching every night in the bullpen, he tried taking a week off, seeing if the rest helped him, watched himself on video and compared it videos when he was pitching well. He went a hypnotist and a psychologist. He learned meditation and practiced it. When a friend suggested looser underwear, he laughed with his teammates…and then he tried it. Some of these cures focused him more on the mechanics, some of them tried to take his mind off his mechanics. None of them worked.
What to say about this stark, door-slamming termination? What can be said? Perhaps that is why most Blass fans continued to love him: he didn’t stop trying to perform, he was struck as if by an illness, like dementia (which is now called “Steve Blass Disease”, from which other players have been known to suffer), from which he would never be the same. Friends and fellow ballplayers were saddened and befuddled. Blass guessed there were at least 17 theories as to why this all happened. Can you explain it any better?
Of course, there is the weight of any glory story. Steve was a hardworking farmhand—a smalltown Connecticut ballplayer—who drove six hours up to an empty, rainy Three Rivers Stadium to try on his uniform as soon as he found out he was being picked up by the Pirates. In short, Blass was an achiever from humble means, who looked as shocked as his audience to pitch a four-hitter in the World Series. And yet, the minute this momentous achievement is landed, the laws of maintenance become the specters of the night. The victor’s curse is the heritage of his namesake.
Roger Angell noted that this high-stakes maintenance has grown in sports significantly, even in the 70s. This makes for unmatched competition and athletic performance; it also means the stakes uncover in the athlete the human being you see in yourself.
But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only a man—only ourself. We are no longer at a game.
This is what fans must have seen with the crumbling of Steve Blass in 1973. The grotesque placement of a human being like themselves, completely out of control, failing in his own (public) stadium of demand. There must have been this “uneasy silence,” to watch (and love) a man who has inexplicably lost what control gained him your respect—but also to see yourself in him? Awkward. To root for this Pirate to have a chance back, even if it means the other Pirates lose for it? Love is love, but business is business.
It must have felt as if Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that day, the press box, the dugouts, the Pirates community listening in from home, Steve Blass’ own family, became Job’s comforters throughout that season. Offering fixes and excuses and recipes that couldn’t manage to bring on peace–except this time, Job doesn’t get a clarion call at the end. He doesn’t get his everything back. This isn’t a 30-for-30 resurrection special, where he accepts his weakness and rises back to the top, a stronger man. He goes to the bottom of the pit, and no amount of fix-it strategies can help him out. He cannot relax, cannot not think about it. His own anxiety has webbed him down there. And so what about these people? Who once could paint the corners with backdoor sliders (and still can do it, physically, if not for what’s happened to them), and now must look at old trophies and watch Little League games? Who will not get their comeback glory this side of Jordan? Surely we say, with compassion, to those with Steve Blass Disease, the Knoblauchs, the Ankiels, the Ruffins, welcome to the club, it’s the oldest one in the league.