Ron Cook: With baseball on pause, Willie Stargell memories come flooding in

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PITTSBURGH — I had a lot of memorable conversations with the late, great Chuck Tanner, who lived his life the way we all should, always looking for the best in everybody and in every situation. One of our talks stands out. It was about Willie Stargell, who, more than any player, delivered him and the Pirates their 1979 World Series championship.

We spoke on April 9, 2001, the day Stargell died at 61 from a variety of health issues, including high blood pressure, heart failure and kidney disease. That was also the day brand new gorgeous PNC Park opened for the Pirates-Reds opening day game. Tanner was devastated but said, “People will always talk about Willie on opening day from here on out. That’s a good thing.”

Thursday of this week was supposed to be opening day 2020 at PNC Park.

I am here to talk about Stargell.

I covered Stargell during that 1979 season when he was co-MVP of the National League with St. Louis’ Keith Hernandez. Every time the Pirates needed a big hit, he seemed to deliver. He hit .400 with three home runs and seven RBIs against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series and won Game 7 with a sixth-inning home run. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 475 home runs.

Stargell was a lot like Tanner, his manager. “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work Ball!’ ” he often said. “He says, ‘Play Ball!’ ” That’s the way Stargell lived every day of his career. It was why he was so respected and loved by all of his teammates, the patriarch of the Pirates’ “We Are Family” bunch in 1979.

“He was like a shepherd with his sheep,” Tanner said. “He touched everyone he ever met.”

“We were all like little boys around Willie,” teammate Manny Sanguillen said. “He was the big kid. He talked, and we listened. I learned so, so much from him.”

I had a great working relationship with Stargell, one of the highlights of my career. I remember him counseling me to stay calm when Dave Parker threatened to kill me one tense day in the Pirates clubhouse. I like to think he wouldn’t have let Parker do it.

I was with Stargell a year before his death for what I believe was the final lengthy interview that he granted. It was during spring training and we went to lunch at a local joint called the Crab Hut in nearby Palmetto, Fla. We ended up eating at a cluttered table in the cluttered kitchen because Stargell knew the owners. I’m sure that must have violated a few health codes. I still can see him picking up catfish with his fingers and dropping it in his mouth.

Stargell’s health was failing, resulting in thrice-weekly dialysis treatments. He nearly died the previous August after slicing his right index finger while cutting meat, the wound leaving him hospitalized for six weeks with a life-threatening infection. “I was pretty sedated,” Stargell said. “I remember waking up and my whole family was around me. They had come in from everywhere. That’s when I figured I might be in some trouble.”

That 2000 spring training turned out to be the last of Stargell’s 42 spring trainings. He needed a golf cart to get around the practice fields at Pirate City but was at his best and happiest when he watched the Pirates’ young prospects. “Being down here is the best tonic in the world for me. Seeing that green grass. Smelling it. Hearing the ball being thrown or hit. … The only thing I don’t like about it is all these kids calling me, ‘Mr. Stargell.’ I like to think it’s respect, but I know better. It’s just their way of calling me an old coot in disguise.”

I covered Stargell’s funeral in Wilmington, N.C. — where he lived the final eight years of his life — when his body finally gave out. Anybody who was anybody in baseball was there.

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan delivered a fabulous eulogy. He had known Stargell since 1961 when Stargell was a young outfielder in the Pirates’ minor league system and Morgan was a high school senior in Oakland, Calif., their shared hometown. They became incredibly close.

“Willie Stargell was my hero. He’s the reason I wore Number 8,” Morgan said. “He was so big in my eyes. He’ll always be bigger than life to me. He is loved like we would all like to be loved.”

Steve Blass told a poignant story about Stargell from their time together at spring training 1974, Blass’ final spring training with the Pirates. Blass had been a World Series hero for the team in 1971 but couldn’t come close to throwing a strike by 1974. Steve Blass Disease, they called it.

“No one wanted to take batting practice against me,” Blass said. “I could see the fear in their eyes. No one wanted to be hit in batting practice. It wasn’t comfortable for me. It wasn’t fun.

“But Willie never hesitated. When it was my turn to pitch, he’d always say, ‘I’ll be first’ He’d look at me and say, ‘Steve, I’m in here for 15 minutes.’ And he would go into the cage without a batting helmet. I know I plunked him a few times. That was his way of saying he still was with me, that I meant something to him. … No one ever stood taller for me than Willie Stargell.”

Like everyone else, I’m hoping the Pirates have an opening day at PNC Park this summer. I always look forward to seeing the flowers that are placed at the base of the Stargell statue outside the ballpark on Federal Street in his honor. It is a magnificent statue, the best I’ve ever seen. It was unveiled and dedicated two days before Stargell’s death.

“I took a bunch of pictures with me when I went to see him,” former Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy once said. “He picked the one we based the statue on. I still can hear him say, ‘I want them to show me hitting the stuffing out of the ball.’ He told me to make sure that sucker was big.”

“Bigger than life,” Morgan said. “Always.”


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