Steve Blass is two men these days. One is the model of the professional athlete on the skids, frustrated and furious at the inexplicable loss of skill that changed him in less than two years from one of baseball’s top pitchers to a floundering minor leaguer.
But there is another Steve Blass, a thoughtful, poised 32-year-old man who has struggled to keep his crumbling career in perspective.
“Even if I never pitch in the majors again,” says the onetime Pittsburgh Pirate ace, “it won’t be the end of the world. I’ve had good years in the majors. I’ve pitched in a World Series and an All-Star game. I have a comfortable life-style thanks to baseball. It irritates me a little when people make me out to be some kind of pathetic figure.”
Blass’s problems began last year. In 1971 he had won 15 regular season games and then pitched superbly in the World Series. In 1972 he won 19 games and at age 30 seemed to be at the peak of his career. But when the 1973 season began, Blass’s only resemblance to that brilliant performer was the No. 28 on his uniform. Though he had no physical ailments, Blass suddenly lost his ability to control his pitches. He finished the 1973 season with one of the worst records ever compiled by a major league pitcher—won three, lost nine, a 9.81 earned run average, 84 walks in 89 innings. He led the league in one department—12 batters hit by pitches. The sport has perhaps never seen such a dramatic decline by an uninjured player.
This spring his pitching had still not improved, and Blass was sent down to Pittsburgh’s highest minor league farm club, the Charleston, W. Va., Charlies. Unlike most players there, he was paid his major league salary—$60,000. Blass was allowed to pitch regularly, but nonetheless, his record with Charleston was abysmal, including 93 walks allowed in 57 innings.
“When you’re going good,” he says, “you don’t think about where you put your foot or how you wind up. Now I’m analyzing everything I do.”
So is everyone else. Blass says he doesn’t think a psychiatrist would be able to help him because “the problems are mechanical,” but amateur shrinks—Blass’s friends, fans and sportswriters—have intimated, among other things, that he was unable to cope psychologically with success.
In Blass’s view, such suggestions are as helpful as the lucky coins, four-leaf clovers and religious tokens fans have sent in. Some proposals have been so bizarre Blass won’t discuss them.
“Not all the advice has been realistic,” Blass admits, “but all those people meant well and I’m not going to belittle them.”
One suggestion he did take was offered by Pirate general manager Joe L. Brown, who recommended that Blass consult a California oculist. Blass, who wears glasses off the field, agreed to undergo a series of tests and exercises to see if visual problems are affecting his pitching. He has been placed on Charleston’s temporarily inactive list and may spend the rest of the season with Pittsburgh, though he won’t be on the playing roster.
Through the last two discouraging years, somehow Blass has maintained his reputation as one of the most good-natured, witty and unpretentious players in baseball. His Charleston teammates often called him “Willard”—because he does a rat imitation that reminded them of the rodent horror movie. He has, however, toned down his usual ebullience to avoid giving the impression that he is taking things too lightly. And he says that if his arm doesn’t improve before the end of the season, he and his wife will discuss whether he should stay in baseball.
Signed by the Pirates right out of high school in Falls Village, Conn., in 1960, Blass, a plumber’s son, has never worked seriously at anything but baseball. He has worked as a part-time sportscaster, however, and has taken some real estate courses. The thought of quitting doesn’t frighten him.
“I try to keep things in balance,” he says. “While I am upset about my pitching, it’s more important to work at being a human being. Whenever I get too worried I remind myself that I’ve had a fulfilling career. And I remember what someone told me: There are about 800 million Chinese who could care less if I never get another batter out.”