One of my true
boyhood heroes, Willie Stargell, passed away early today, at 61.
Among my fondest
memories as a baseball fan was watching
the 1979 "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series over the
Baltimore Orioles, coming from behind 3 games to 1, to win in seven. The
39-year-old Stargell was the powerful force on that team, winning regular
season, LCS and World Series MVP awards (the only man to sweep the table).
He hit the decisive homer in Game 7, naturally. Throughout the season
he awarded gold "Stargell Stars" to his teammates affixed
to those ridiculous train-conductor caps for their accomplishments.
Stargell was one
of the most feared sluggers in the game, but also one of the most
engaging. Even in the batter's box, he'd step in with a grin, windmill
his bat a few times then he was all business, peering down at a
pitcher who would rather have been waiting for a bus in the rain somewhere
in Iowa. As a kid, I copied that pinwheel I still find myself doing
it 20-odd years later, with a plastic whiffle-ball bat. At one point, Stargell
held the home-run distance record in almost half of the National League
ballparks. For a long time he was the ony man to hit a ball out of Dodger
he did it twice. In 1978, he hit a tape-measure homer in Montreal that
went so far into the upper deck that they painted the seat gold in his
honor. The shot was estimated at 535 feet! That an opponent would do something
to honor such an accomplishment is a testament to what Stargell brought
to the game: a respect and a joy which no fan could resist.
A few years ago,
when the Yankees made a trip to Montreal, during a slow moment of the MSG broadcast,
announcer Ken Singleton told the story of that prodigious homer. The camera panned
up to the seat, where two shaggy dudes, surrounded by a sea of empty seats, were
conspicuously sharing a joint. "Talk about high!" sputtered Singleton.
away on the day the Pirates open their new ballpark, only two days after they
unveiled a 12-foot bronze statue of the man. While the irony may seem somewhat
cruel, a baseball fan could justifiably look on his passing as a timely ascenscion
to the best seat in the house, and a fitting reminder of his prominent place in
one city's history. Rest in peace, Willie.