Willie StargellMarch 4, 2011
According to the Gods: a 2011 Team-By-Team Preview
In 2011, fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates will ponder great distances. It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Stargell led the team to its last World Series championship, and except for a few years in the early 1990s almost all the seasons since Pops hung up his spikes have been dismal road signs marking the increasing distance from greatness. This 1981 Willie Stargell card, showing the lumbering 40-year-old pondering the ball he has just struck, presumably hoping it has enough distance to add another tally to a career home run total that by then virtually guaranteed the Pittsburgh slugger a plaque in the Hall of Fame. The best bet, judging from Stargell’s steeply declining power numbers (he hit just 11 home runs the previous season, the fewest since his rookie season, and in 1981 not a single one of his 66 plate appearances would end with a trot around the bases), is that the ball will fall short of the fence. But with Willie Stargell there’s always hope. You can’t hold a Willie Stargell card in your hands and not feel at least a flicker of possibilities. So I’m predicting that the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates will once again cause their fans to ponder seemingly unbridgeable distances, but I also see a little yellow spark of hope.
Distance as it applies to the Pittsburgh Pirates is most generally felt in terms of time, that gaping span of years since greatness, but in the following excerpt from a 1999 AP article by Ted Anthony (who would, two year later, post a stirring elegy for Stargell), distance in terms of Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates is felt in its primary sense. In 1979, Anthony was an 11-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates fanatic in the middle of a dream season for his team when he suddenly found himself on the other side of the globe from his team:
On Aug. 14, 1979, halfway through the baseball season, off we went to be among the first American families to be sent to China in decades. My linguist parents would be teaching in Beijing. . . .
October came, and I felt more distant than ever. The clippings trickled in, and I lovingly pasted each into a scrapbook. I look at it today, and the excitement still surges with each headline: “Stargell Belts HR in 11th As Bucs Top Reds in Opener.” “Pittsburgh Headed Toward First NL Pennant Since 1971.”
And then, a bold Pittsburgh Press headline: “Series-Bound Pirates Sweep Reds.”
It seemed to unfold so quickly from there. Orioles win. Bucs win. Orioles win two more. Bucs even it up. Before I knew it, the Series was deadlocked 3-3, with the seventh game to be played in Baltimore. I was heartsick. The clippings were no longer enough.
I needed to hear it as it happened.
Sidney Rittenberg was a man with a history—a history I understood very little of back then. He had circulated in the inner sanctum of Chinese communist power for years—unheard of for an American. And, when things turned sour during the Cultural Revolution, he was imprisoned. I didn’t know then that he had recently been freed from a decade under arrest.
All I knew was that he was a nice older gentleman, a “China hand” whose family had three suites in our Friendship Hotel compound. His son, Li Xiaoming, half Chinese and half American, was my age—a good friend and a cool guy. He looked and spoke Chinese, but could also play a mean game of stickball. For the small group of American kids I hung with, he was a link between our world and the one that surrounded us.
I had been bellyaching about missing each Pirate postseason victory, and word filtered up to his dad, who sent a message back down the kid chain: Would I like to come over and listen to the game on shortwave, on U.S. Armed Forces Radio?
I answered an enthusiastic yes; shortwave radios weren’t easy to come by.
Because of the time difference—Beijing was 13 hours later than Baltimore—I arrived at their apartment just after 7 a.m., was let in and immediately given a cup of jasmine tea. A couple of my American friends, skipping school too, showed up minutes later. We were ushered into a living room, and in the corner sat a gray console about the size of a toaster oven—the most impressive shortwave I had ever seen, with a huge tuning dial. Mr. Rittenberg came out.
“Go ahead,” he told me, and I turned it on.
Together we trolled for the Armed Forces Radio frequency until the static melted into the familiar sound of a cheering crowd, half a planet away.
The voices weren’t my favorite Pittsburgh announcers, Milo Hamilton and Lanny Frattare, but it didn’t matter. This was The Game; I was connected. In a small apartment in a confusing country, I was suddenly able to touch a piece of home.
There it blurs. I remember the Orioles pulling ahead 1-0, but I don’t remember how. I remember sitting on my hands and wishing my eyes could complete the picture my ears were assembling. I remember thinking, as the game went into the sixth, that losing the series on one run would be devastating.
Then came Willie.
I remember Scotty McGregor’s slider. I remember hearing the crack of a bat 7,000 miles away. I remember some of the announcer’s words: “Stargell . . . drive . . . deep . . . warning track . . . home run!”
And, as the final innings crested to the Pirate championship that the boy who used to be me so coveted, I remember thinking this: Somewhere out there, there’s a home for me to go back to. It’s OK; it still exists.
How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 5 of 30: read Dan Epstein’s deeply enjoyable book on the greatest decade in baseball history (and one that the Dock Ellis/Willie Stargell/We Are Family Pittsburgh Pirates embodied as much as any team): Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s