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   W A L L   O F   F A M E

APRIL 9 , 2001

Willie Stargell, R.I.P.

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 Stadium — and 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.

Stargell passed 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.

Pittsburgh Pirates
.282, 475 HR, 1540 RBI