Bill Lyon: Blasts from the past, bang for the Bucs

Posted: July 16, 2012

They give you a round bat and they throw you a round ball and they tell you to hit it square. - Willie "Pops" Stargell


He's been on my mind a lot of late, that Wilver Dornel Stargell, masher of monster home runs. He was a great grizzly bear of a man, but a teddy bear at heart. The franchise that he served so well has, without respite, fallen on hard times. If you're still a Pirates fan after all these years, then you, sir, get a medal for unshakable loyalty, with oak leaf cluster.

But there is a faint glimmer of hope at long, long last, the unmistakable hint of a recovery, and somewhere up there Pops is taking batting practice with St. Peter, and grinning.

You can summon him in your mind's eye now, how he would settle into the batter's box, and he always seemed to make it feel as if it overflowed like a crowded phone booth. He would start that familiar windmilling with his bat, and if something juicy was being served he would uncoil and there would be the sound of a thunderclap and this brief exchange between onlookers:

"Where you do think that one lands?"

"Mars, maybe."

Well, one of them landed in Philadelphia, in the far reaches of the late Veterans Stadium, where it was commemorated with a star that was reverently attached to a seat.

It is a long and impressive honor roll, the missiles Pops launched - four in the upper deck at Three Rivers, seven over the right-field roof of Forbes Field, two completely out of Dodger Stadium, and one out of Olympic Stadium in Montreal that measured - Mon Dieu! - 535 feet.

He bashed 475 in all and it seemed as if just about every one of them came at a crossroads point in a game. He was a natural-born leader, too - remember "We Are Family"? And in the 1970s the Pirates of Pops had a dandy little Hatfield-McCoy feud going with Mike Schmidt and the Phillies. The Fightin's were the first ones to drop by the wayside. Pops soldiered on, trying to hold them - and his aching body - together. (Once he morosely reflected on the lack of recuperative powers: "Takes longer and longer to get better, and pretty soon it doesn't get better at all.")

Fun Fact . . . Trivia Teaser:

The professional baseball teams of the state of Pennsylvania possess the two most ignominious records to be found in captivity. Name them.

The Fightin's. First team, in any professional sport, to reach 10,000 losses. Surely you remember. It was in all the papers. The consolation was that No. 10,000 came in the middle of this glorious - soon to be ended, I fear - run we've been on.

   The Buccos. Nineteen straight losing seasons. Nineteen. A record for sustained ineptitude. Even the Fightin's, for all of their mottled history, have never amassed 19 consecutive losing seasons.

Ah, but wait, what is this shimmering out there on the horizon? Is it a cruel mirage? Or is it . . . is it . . . the Pirates in first place? Could it be? Is that rumbling sound the ghost of Pops rising up?

When baseball resumed Friday, the Pirates were 48-37. Atop the Central Division by one game. And fresh from a 13-2 thrashing of the Giants, punctuated by A.J. Burnett, the winning pitcher and a veteran, thrusting right arm aloft and holding that pose all the way from mound to dugout, and then admitting, a bit chagrined: "I don't know what got into me. I looked around . . . the fans cheering for us. I'm proud to take the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I'm proud, man. I'm just proud to pitch for these players, these fans, I'm just proud to be a Pittsburgh Pirate."

And how long since last you heard such a sentiment?

Pittsburgh shivers in the night.

Up to now, the sentiment has been sour, reflected on signs such as this: "Pittsburgh . . . City of Champions . . . and the Pirates."


It stings even more because, while the Pirates have been racking up one dismal season after another, Pittsburgh's other two teams have been parading Stanley Cups and Super Bowls.

So now what, Buccos? The faithful approach the second half warily. They have been down this road before, as recently as last year, when they climbed into the contender's seat only to watch helplessly while the team melted.

This team should be able to avoid such calamity, providing that its bullpen can continue a remarkable run in which it has put up an ERA of 2.66, best in all of baseball.

The role of Pops could be assumed by Andrew McCutchen, the cheetah-sleek centerfielder who is touted as a five-tool talent with 30-30 potential. Or maybe 40-40?

The key to Pittsburgh's resurgence is explained by second sacker Neil Walker: "You realize you have to let the game come to you. Slow it down."

And, he added, and right here we're paraphrasing and repeating this for the benefit of a certain red-and-white- striped team: Take pitches . . . don't chase pitches.

As Pops once suggested: Don't make the game harder than it already is.

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