Former Pirates All-Star inexplicably lost control of his pitches, ending his career
By Terence Moore
Here we go again. The name Steve Blass has become synonymous with pitchers who can't do this and hitters who can't do that and fielders who can't do much of anything with their glove or throwing arm. You know, with all of that misery happening out of nowhere for everybody involved.
"Yeah, I'm an easy reference point when it comes to all of those types of situations," said Blass, 73, sighing over the phone from Pittsburgh, where he has been a television and radio announcer for the Pirates since the early 1980s.
Blass played for the team in 1964 and from '66-74. Then, as the baseball world rubbed its eyes, he retired. Blass went in a flash from one of the elite pitchers in the National League to a guy who couldn't make an accurate toss from an easy chair in his living room to a nearby wastebasket.
Thus the term "Steve Blass Disease."
We've heard it often this season. Then again, such has been the case for the past 40 years, and Blass responded with another sigh, but it was one of acknowledgement instead of regret.
"When people recall what I went through, it's kind of a flashpoint, because it was such an emphatic drop from the heights to the bottom, so I understand the interest. But it's not my favorite subject," said Blass.
Which is why we need to emphasize the following: This was a rare interview for the former All-Star right-hander regarding his pitching implosion of the past and why those memories will live forever. In sum, Major League players keep having bizarre struggles, which always brings enquiring minds back to Blass.
Just like that, Blass went from being a World Series hero in 1971 and finishing second in the NL Cy Young Award voting in '72 with a 19-8 record and a 2.49 ERA, to posting a 9.85 ERA after 23 outings the following season. He also led baseball in hit batters with 12. Worse, Blass spent most of '74 in the Minors after allowing eight runs (five earned) on five hits and seven walks in five innings in his final big league appearance.
"My philosophy has always been that since people were interested when I was going good, the least I could do is not shut down when people want to know why that happened," Blass said. "So I'm OK with the subject, and I certainly understand why the interest is there."
The interest is there, because … Well, just look at examples from this season.
Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond has spent a couple of years as an NL Gold Glove Award finalist, but he is leading all Major League fielders with eight errors, and most of them were perplexing. They've involved popups and grounders, along with poor decision making. And when it comes to throwing, those sitting in the lower grandstands have learned to take cover.
The Pirates' own Pedro Alvarez, who tied for the NL lead in home runs as a third baseman in 2013, has been moved to first base this year because of his throwing woes.
Speaking of throwing, don't mention that word to Cubs pitcher Jon Lester, but only if you're referring to first base. He has committed so many gaffes trying to keep runners close to the bag that he virtually doesn't bother (forgive me, Jon) throwing to first anymore.
Then there is the bizarre slide of Dan Uggla at the plate. After five years of efficiency with the Marlins, his hitting prowess began to vanish with the Braves in 2011. Uggla is now with the Nationals, and he is trying to avoid a third straight year with a batting average under .200. He's currently at .129.
Yep, Steve Blass Disease.
So what was the original cause of this thing?
"Well, do you want all of the possible theories I've heard alphabetically or by number?" Blass said, chuckling, before recalling how some believed he was traumatized by the death of teammate Roberto Clemente, whose plane crashed on New Year's Eve 1972 off the coast of Puerto Rico. "We were friends, but we both had closer friends, so it wasn't as if we were so emotionally connected. We all felt [the weight] of that tragedy, but I don't attribute it to that.
"I never did figure out what caused it, but I'm satisfied with the fact that I explored every possibility trying to get it back. I didn't want to be 85 years old, sitting on the back porch and saying, 'Boy, I wish I would have tried that.' I tried everything. I went through hell for two years [in 1973 and '74] trying everything. I do not know what the trigger was for that and what caused it to this day.
"Maybe with the medical technology they have these days, they might have been able to figure it out. Heck, maybe I can go up to Harvard Medical School right now and say, 'Here I am, boys. Figure me out.'"
Blass chuckled, even when remembering the mental torture of becoming a Major League has-been at 32. There were no sports psychologists back then.
"But we did have Danny Murtaugh," he said, chuckling some more, referring to the beloved Pirates manager for parts of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. "He was like a baseball father to me. Here's the interesting thing: Since I went through all of that and tried everything, I would get the phone calls, with players seeking my advice on what to do. It was like I had an 800 number."
During the latter 1990s, for instance, Braves closer Mark Wohlers went through a stretch when he threatened to deliver his fastball more to the backstop than to the catcher's mitt.
Wohlers dialed Blass.
Rick Ankiel did the same. His call came after he threw five wild pitches as a Cardinals starting pitcher in one inning of a 2000 playoff game. Ankiel never recovered as a pitcher and went on to play from '07-13 as an outfielder.
"I also talked to Steve Sax [during the 1980s] and to Chuck Knoblauch [during the 1990s]," said Blass, referring to former Major League second basemen who discovered after a while that they couldn't make that short throw to first base without drama. "Heck, Dale Murphy was a catcher [during the late 1970s], and he couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher, and he later became [a two-time NL] MVP [Award winner] as an outfielder.
"Whenever those things would happen, people would call and say, 'What do you think?' And I would always say, 'You're calling the right guy. I didn't get over it, but I wish I could help.'
"I know how painful it is when you experience something like that, and I finally would tell them, 'If I could give you any advice, it would be to just try everything. Don't give up. Something might click. And if it doesn't, you're satisfied you tried everything.' "
As for Blass, who keeps practicing what he preaches to others victimized by his unofficial disease, "I'm OK with folks using my name. That's because I'm OK with my career, and I'm OK with my life."
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.