Steve Blass laughed as he recalled his first radio color commentary gig.
The popular Pittsburgh Pirates television/radio commentator and former World Series star pitcher traces his broadcast roots to Johnstown’s Point Stadium, where in 1981 he joined Pittsburgh icon Bob “The Gunner” Prince in calling a AAABA Tournament game.
“We were not behind home plate. We were down the line,” Blass said, referring to the Point’s football press box near the right-field corner. “That was different. It was hard to see anything. In terms of adding color, there were very few remarks. I sat next to the Gunner. He could make up a baseball game if we were sitting somewhere in Connellsville.”
Blass will return to Johnstown as the featured speaker during the AAABA Hall of Fame banquet at the Pasquerilla Conference Center on Aug. 4.
A Pirates television color commentator for 27 years, Blass is known for his sense of humor and ability to tell a great story.
The 70-year-old from Upper St. Clair also provides an example of how to persevere through tough, seemingly hopeless, times.
His new book “A Pirate for Life” was released on May 1. In it, Blass details his ascent as one of the top pitchers in the majors – a winner of two World Series games for the 1971 championship team – to the inexplicable and rapid descent as a pitcher who could not throw strikes.
“It was something I had in the back of my mind for a long time,” said Blass, who wrote the 256-page autobiography with co-author Erik Sherman. “I thought I had enough stories, enough background. The reason I wrote the book is I thought my story was a little different than the guy who had a great career.
“I don’t think anybody had such a drop from the heights to the depths that I did. The first chapter is about those two very difficult years. I would not have written the book had that not happened.”
Blass won two games against the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series, including the decisive seventh game. Images of his leaping high in the air, arms outstretched and legs bent just prior to his jumping into the arms of first baseman Bob Robertson after the Game 7 win, are the stuff of legend in western Pennsylvania.
Blass was an All-Star pitcher in 1972. He won 19 games and finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting.
Then, he lost his ability to throw strikes.
Blass endured two trying seasons in 1973 and 1974 as he attempted to find his way back.
“I just conveyed what it was like to experience that and the challenges, the ability to some degree to not cave in,” Blass said. “Everything else is chronicled in the book including the approach and what it was like to see this monster evolve and not being able to get out of it.”
Blass said his problem was not physical. The book documents how he went to psychologists and “visualization guys.” He tried various mental and physical exercises and routines.
“I wanted to be convinced that it was gone for good,” Blass said. “I didn’t want to wake up at age 80 on some back porch and say, “I wish I would have tried this or that.’ You tried every little thing.
“The book was full disclosure. People are surprised that it was brutally honest. I didn’t want to sugar coat it. I wanted to cover all the aspects. I don’t mean to make it sound inspirational, but there might be some messages there. … ‘If you don’t quit.’ ”
Blass certainly didn’t.
After retiring from baseball in 1975, he worked eight years for Jostens selling class rings. He also was employed by an Anheiser-Busch distributorship before finding his way into the broadcasting booth.
Through it all, he’s been tied to the Pirates in one way or another for 54 years.
“This is my story about my journey through my life,” Blass said. “It’s also kind of a love letter to baseball fans in the city of Pittsburgh and the area.”
The book also helped his family better understand an ordeal that Blass said he often tried to “internalize.” His wife, Karen, and sons David and Christopher, stood by him through those difficult years despite his attempts to shield them from the worst experiences.
“It was somewhat therapeutic for my family,” Blass said of the book. “I thought I was protecting them and I thought that was the right approach. Looking back, I wish I would have shared it with them and communicated more with them. Now that we revisited it, I think my sons have a better understanding. Karen, my wife of 49 years, has a better understanding.”
The book release coincided with a resurgence by the Pirates.
Led by dynamic All-Stars Andrew McCutchen and Joel Hanrahan, veteran 10-game winner A.J. Burnett and young standouts such as Neil Walker, James McDonald and Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates entered the All-Star break in first place. Long-suffering Bucs fans are hoping the team will end a string of 19 consecutive losing seasons.
“It’s been wonderful, an absolute joy,” Blass said. “I made the remark Sunday, ‘Folks, I’ve been doing a lot of gushing, but I’ve been waiting 19 years to do some gushing.’ We don’t even have to tell them how pretty the ballpark is which is what we had done for years.”
As for his upcoming Johnstown visit, Blass sees a sort of symmetry.
Back in 1981, Prince’s broadcast was aired over the Point Stadium public address system as fans coped with a rain delay during a “Green Weenie” promotion.
“I was at this event with Bob Prince a thousand years ago before I ever started broadcasting,” Blass said. “The Gunner said, ‘Come on lad and do some color for me.’ The AAABA Tournament is a wonderful event, with a lot of major league graduates. Anything I can do to enhance anything like that in my own small way, I’m going to do it.”
AAABA Hall of Fame Banquet
When: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 4.
Where: Pasquerilla Conference Center.
Class of 2012: Randy Mazey, Johnstown; Rep. Mark Critz, Johnstown; Ottoviano “Tovie” Asarese, Buffalo, N.Y.
Steve Blass laughed as he recalled his first radio color commentary gig.
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