Tuesday, September 18, 2012

1971 World Series: Clemente and Blass

The Teams
National League: Pittsburgh Pirates (97-65) - Sixth World Series (Won in 1909, 1925, 1960)
American League: Baltimore Orioles (101-57) - Fourth World Series (Won in 1966, 1970)

What Happened
Roberto Clemente was 37 years old in 1971, at the tail end of a brilliant career. He could always hit - boy, could he hit, including a .341 average in 1971 - and he could throw. Boy, could he throw. Longtime announcer Vin Scully once said Clemente could field a ball in New York and throw out a runner in Pennsylvania. He was exaggerating, but not by much. Yet for all his brilliance, his consistency, he was often overshadowed by the brighter stars of his day, namely Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, partially because he didn't hit home runs like they did, but mostly because of latent - or blatant discrimination against Latin players.

The 1971 World Series, then, was probably his last chance to shine. He had played in the 1960 World Series that Pittsburgh had won, of course, getting a hit in all seven games, but he hadn't yet established himself as a star. Even if he had, anything positive he accomplished that series was virtually ignored by the flat-out bizarre way the Pirates won that series. Clemente hadn't gotten his proper due. Now was his time.

Steve Blass was 29 years old in 1971. He had shown some flashes of brilliance during his previous six years with Pittsburgh, but for the most part had been an average to above-average pitcher through his first six years. But down the stretch in 1971, Blass caught fire. He threw three straight complete games, winning them all, as Pittsburgh held off St. Louis to win the NL Central. He was so good down the stretch that the Pirates picked him to start Game 1 of the NLCS against San Francisco.

The Orioles won the first two games of the World Series that year, to no one's surprise. The two wins gave them a stunning 16 straight wins. The Orioles were very good; they had great pitching, (the first team to have four 20-game winners on one staff), they played great defense (led by the great Brooks Robinson), and had a powerful, brutal lineup. They were an outstanding team ... and they were dead in the water. They just didn't know yet what fate had in store for them.

As it was, though, Clemente told his teammates before Game 3 that he had them the rest of the way, that he was gonna win this series. Blass heard the message and decided to give Clemente some help, throwing a complete-game three-hitter to shut down Baltimore. Clemente, meanwhile, drove in Pittsburgh's first run, then started the seventh-inning rally that was capped by a Bob Robertson three-run home run. Pittsburgh won 5-1, and the series was on.

They won the next two games, with Clemente getting four hits while Blass waited his turn for a potential Game 7 start. After Baltimore won Game 6 - despite a Clemente home run - Blass got the ball. In Game 7, Clemente homered in the fourth to open the scoring - a hit that gave him a hit in all 14 World Series games he ever played in - and Blass took it from there. An insurance run in the top of the eighth proved vital when Baltimore finally got to Blass for a run in the bottom of the 8th. He got out of that jam, then breezed through the ninth, and the Pirates were the champions.

They celebrated long and hard. Clemente finally received recognition as a true superstar, while Blass was hailed as baseball's next big pitching star. While Clemente was nearing the end, they were both hailed as the cornerstones of a potential Pittsburgh dynasty. And they made it back to the postseason in 1972, only to be cut down by the Big Red Machine. And then ...

And then Blass couldn't through strikes. A good control pitcher throughout his career, Blass suddenly lost it all. Throughout 1973, he couldn't throw strikes at all. He struggled through 18 starts, ending up with almost as many walks as innings pitched. He spent 1974 in the minors, and it got worse. Eventually, completely unable to throw strikes, Blass had to retire. He left a legacy on the game, however: now anytime a pitcher unexpectedly and irreversibly loses the strike zone, he is said to suffer from Steve Blass Disease.

Blass' fate, though, was nothing compared to Clemente's. His story is often repeated; he got his 3,000th career hit in his final at bat of the 1972 season, the hit that helped make the 3,000-hit milestone an important one for hitters. That offseason, he organized relief efforts for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Worried the supplies wouldn't get to where they were supposed to go, Clemente hopped on the plane to escort the supplies to Nicaragua. He never made it, going down with the plane into the Caribbean Sea. In death, his legend grew even more, and he became the shining star of Latin American baseball.

In different ways, Blass and Clemente might have been cursed, living on borrowed time. Clemente certainly spoke like he didn't expect to be on earth for very long. Maybe the 1971 series ended the way it did for a specific reason. Maybe the Pirates of Blass and Clemente were fated to win, to beat the mighty Orioles, to remind all athletes the randomness of success, how fickle the baseball gods could be.

Clemente batted .414, had five extra-base hits, played sensational defense - including one of the best throws anybody had ever seen - and single-handedly carried the Pirates to the championship. He was the first Latin player to win the award, and in doing so did something that even Aaron and Mays never did.

(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)

Pittsburgh 3354 422
Baltimore5111 303 (10)1

The List
I'm ranking all the World Series, from worst to best. Here are the ones I've done so far:

25. 1971 - Pittsburgh (N) def. Baltimore (A) 4-3
26. 1918 - Boston (A) def. Chicago (N) 4-2
27. 1988 - Los Angeles (N) def. Oakland (A) 4-1
28. 1946 - St. Louis (N) def. Boston (A) 4-3
29. 1925 - Pittsburgh (N) def. Washington (A) 4-3
Numbers 30-39
Numbers 40-49
Numbers 50-59
Numbers 60-69
Numbers 70-79
Numbers 80-89
Numbers 90-99
Numbers 100-107

Game 7s
Simultaneously, I'll rank all the Game 7s. The ones that have appeared in my countdown so far:

7. 1946: St. Louis (N) 4, Boston (A) 3
9. 1925: Pittsburgh 9, Washington 7
12. 1979: Pittsburgh 4, Baltimore 1
13. 1955: Brooklyn 2, New York (A) 0
15. 1971: Pittsburgh 2, Baltimore 1
16. 1940: Cincinnati 2, Detroit 1
18. 1987: Minnesota 4, St. Louis 2
19. 1958: New York 6, Milwaukee 2
21. 1968: Detroit 4, St. Louis 1
22. 1931: St. Louis (N) 4, Philadelphia (A) 2
26. 1982: St. Louis 6, Milwaukee 3
28. 1965: Los Angeles (A) 2, Minnesota 0
29. 1964: St. Louis 7, New York (A) 5
30. 1957: Milwaukee 5, New York (A) 0
31. 1967: St. Louis 7, Boston 2
32. 1945: Detroit 9, Chicago (N) 3
33. 1909: Pittsburgh 8, Detroit 0
34. 1934: St. Louis (N) 11, Detroit 0 
36. 1985: Kansas City 11, St. Louis 0

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