Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Review: A Pirate for Life (2012)

By Steve Blass with Erik Sherman

Steve Blass is a member of a very small group, and for the moment we're not talking about pitchers who have won the seventh game of a World Series with a complete game.

No, we're talking about people who have had "diseases" named after them. If scientists aren't included, the list if pretty small. Lou Gehrig disease, or ALS, comes to mind immediately, but that's about it.

Blass was close to the top of the baseball world, in part because of that Series win, when he suddenly couldn't throw a baseball over home plate. He went from World Series hero in 1971 to unemployed baseball player within a few years, all because he somehow couldn't throw strikes any more. And anytime it happens to someone else, he is diagnosed with having "Steve Blass Disease." Ask Rick Ankiel and Mark Wohlers about it.

The story about Blass and the disease opens "A Pirate for Life," and is the best part of it. What does a person in the prime of his career do and feel when he mysteriously loses his central talent of throwing strikes? You can imagine the mental anguish. What's more, Blass seems like the last guy in the world who would have such a problem, as he prided him on being the life of the clubhouse.

Blass grew up in rural Connecticut and signed with the Pirates out of high school. It took him a while to work his way up the ladder, but he became a good pitcher along the way. Finally, Blass reached the majors in 1964, and eventually earned a regular job in the Pirates' rotation. He was quite good in his prime -- not Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson, but he was a consistent winner and even turned up in an All-Star Game.

As we discover here, Blass provided some of the life in some good Pirate teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those teams were known for their ethnic diversity as much as its talents, as whites, blacks and Latins meshed nicely. It sounds like the pitcher was in charge of keeping everyone loose and united, a job he did well and with a great deal of relish.

There's no time for joking when it comes to Game Seven of the Series, and Blass' description of his feeling during that day is quite interesting. No, you don't sleep well the night before, but he was awake enough to shut down the Orioles and bring a championship to Pittsburgh.

That win seems like it was a Faustian bargain -- "Would you trade a World Series title for the end of your career?" -- and Blass soon was out of baseball. He sold high school class rings and beer for a while, but eventually worked his way into broadcasting. Blass has stayed there ever since, relying in part on that goofy side of his personality and his love of the Pirates to become very popular in Pittsburgh.

Blass certainly sounds like he's enjoyed much of the ride, and there are some stories here about his Pirate teammates and other associates that draw laughs. In fact, it's easy to wonder after a while if Blass didn't have a little too much fun. He went to a great many functions and had a lot of late nights. There are lots of drinking stories and some crude language.

After reading this, it's not a surprise that his wife left him for a while. A baseball player has some odd hours, and it's usually the wife who must take care of the household and the children. While Blass admits that he should have been around more for his family, the rest of the book's tone indicates that he doesn't have a great many regrets either.

Those who have grown up listening to Blass as a fun-loving broadcaster ought to like "A Pirate for Life." Indeed, the reviews on amazon.com, mostly from those who are fans, are glowing. Still, after reading this version of his life story, it's easy to wonder if he didn't get trapped playing the part of the jokester, and at times nerve quite had the nerve to leave it completely.

Three stars

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