CHARLOTTE, N.C., April 1, 2016 – Over the years baseball may have ceded its position as America’s favorite sport to football, but there is still something special about Opening Day each year.
In April when an umpire yells “Play ball” for the first time, it raises the curtain on a new season of athleticism in every sport. Yes, there are the Super Bowl and the Final Four, but they are carry-overs from the previous year. Baseball sets the sports world in motion with its annual soap opera of daily conflicts that spans the summer.
So it seems appropriate to pay tribute to some of baseball’s great personalities as a prelude to that first pitch on Sunday.
His teammates called him “Pops” because he was the veteran leader of the Pittsburgh Pirates for two decades between 1962 and 1982.
Willie Stargell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988 on the first ballot, but it was his character that made him a “Hall of Famer” off the field as much as his baseball skills.
Spending my summers in New England, I have long been a Boston Red Sox fan, even though they play real baseball in the National League. Consequently, for me at least, Willie Stargell was just another name on a Pittsburgh Pirates roster.
Over his career “Pops” hit 475 home runs, connected for 2,232 hits, drove in 1,540 runs, had a lifetime batting average of .282 and appeared in seven All-Star games while playing for only one team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The occasion of my encounter with Stargell came in 1979 while covering the World Series for the CBS television affiliate in Charlotte, N.C.
Game 7 was played in Baltimore in the pre-Camden Yards era. Throughout the week many of the media wags were having a great time putting down the Pirates’ adopted anthem of “We Are Family,” which was released by Sister Sledge in March of that year.
As team captain, Stargell urged his mates to make the song a season-long symbol of team unity despite the cynicism of the press. The year before, “Pops” had inaugurated the practice of giving his colleagues “Stargell stars” for whenever they made a great play or had an outstanding game.
During the 1978 season the Pirates made their way through the standings from fourth place and 11 ½ games out of first to challenge the Philadelphia Phillies for the division title.
Mired in last place at the end of April in 1979, the Pirates again clawed their way to the top with numerous late inning victories, many in their last at bat, to beat out the Montreal Expos.
By 1979, Stargell was in the twilight of his great career, but all the players on the Pirates looked to him for inspiration and leadership as the World Series unfolded against the Baltimore Orioles. Stargell knew it would be his last hurrah though he played three more seasons before retiring in 1983.
“Pops” was a quintessential baseball player. He won MVP honors in the National Championship Series in ’79 primarily for his defense. And so he led his “family” into Baltimore for baseball’s Fall Classic.
Down in the series in 1979, Stargell rallied his “family” in dramatic style to become the only team in baseball history to win the World Series twice after trailing three games to one. The other time was in 1925.
Though an aging star, Stargell was not fading. He went 12 for 30 during the series including three home runs and four doubles for a total of 25 bases to tie Reggie Jackson for the World Series record in that category.
Ultimately it was Stargell’s towering two-run homer in the sixth inning that gave the Pirates a 2-1 lead before going on to win, 4-1. “Pops” went 4 for 5 for the day.
Later in the post-game press conference, the media had long since forgotten about the “We Are Family” jokes as they bombarded the Pirates star with questions.
Suddenly, Kent Tekulve, the Pirates closer who saved three games in the series including Game 7, accidentally opened the door to the media room, thinking Stargell had finished. Embarrassed, Tekulve immediately apologized and shut the door.
It was then that Stargell left the microphone and went to the door and called Tekulve back. “Kent,” he said, “get in here, these guys want to talk to you.”
Stargell returned to the microphone and made one final comment to the press. “Ask this guy your questions,” he said. “He’s the future.”
And with that the veteran captain of the World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates stepped off the stage, yielding it to his much younger teammate.
At a moment in his career when he could have, and should have, been reveling in his career accomplishment, Willie Stargell turned the platform “back to the future.”
Willie Stargell died in Wilmington, N.C., in 2001, but there is no doubt that “Pops” was, indeed, a “family man.”
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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