The Books: Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker; edited by David Remnick; ‘Gone For Good’, by Roger Angell


Next up on the essays shelf:

Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick

Life Stories is a collection of “profiles” from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick.

Roger Angell is a national treasure, a poet of baseball. He wrote sports columns for The New Yorker for years and you can buy numerous collections of his writings. He seems unable to write a boring sentence. (His shorter ‘Talk of the Town’ piece about Willie Mays was excerpted in another New Yorker collection). Roger Angell is still alive, in his 90s now, and still writing.

‘Gone For Good’ tells the haunting story (or, at least it’s haunting in Angell’s hands) of Pirates pitcher Steve Blass who one day, seemingly from out of a clear blue sky, stopped being able to pitch. His “case” became so famous that similar situations are now referred to as “Steve Blass Disease”. Angell makes the point in this piece which is both a breakdown of what happened to Steve Blass as well as an in-depth profile of the man himself (Angell spent a lot of time with Blass and his family) that Steve Blass’ case is unique. There are other players who have a bad season, or maybe lose control for a while, but focusing on mechanics or mental preparation or whatever can straighten them right out. One day, it appears, Steve Blass walked out to the pitcher’s mound and could no longer do what he did the day before. It baffled everyone. The Pirates club tried to handle it as best they could: Steve Blass was well-liked, so he was given leeway. He worked with pitching coaches, and doctors, he watched footage of his windup to see where he might be going wrong. He worked with psychiatrists. Nothing helped. Finally, the Pirates had to throw up their hands in defeat and let Steve Blass go. There were regrets on both sides. Everyone was rooting for Steve Blass to figure it out.

Steve Blass 1971 Pirates World Series Orioles

Major league pitching is a minor league obsession of mine. It’s such a solitary role, being up there on the mound, staring down the greatest players in the world. I am fascinated by those who can take it, mentally not to mention physically. The accuracy required is so Luke-destroying-the-Death-Star crazy that it is amazing that anyone can strike anyone out ever.

Roger Angell goes into the Zen of Pitching a bit in this piece – or, rather, the shriekingly-difficult Zen of pitching.

Pitching consistency is probably the ingredient that separates major-league baseball from the lesser levels of the game. A big-league fastball comes in on the batter at about eighty-five or ninety miles an hour, completing its prescribed journey of sixty feet six inches in less than half a second, and, if it is a strike, generally intersects no more than an inch or two of the seventeen-inch-wide plate, usually near the upper or lower limits of the strike zone; curves and sliders arrive a bit later but with intense rotation, and must likewise slice off only a thin piece of the black if they are to be effective. Sustaining this kind of control over a stretch of, say, one hundred thirty pitches in a seven- or eight-inning appearance places such excruciating demands on a hurler’s body and psyche that even the most successful pitchers regularly have games when they simply can’t get the job done. Their fastball comes in high, their curves hang, the rest of their prime weapons desert them. The pitcher is knocked about, often by an inferior rival team, and leaves within a few innings; asked about it later, he shrugs and says, “I didn’t have it today.” He seems unsurprised. Pitching, it sometimes appears, is too hard for anyone.

The piece is filled with gem-paragraphs such as that one.

Steve Blass comes off as a sweet man, without self-pity. But his wife gives another story, of how he would cry and scream during this difficult time, when he was alone with her. It is a touching image. He is a private man, and … you know, pitchers are another breed. They are part of a team, sure, but they’re up on that mound alone. They have to deliver the goods. They’re just a different kind of athlete. Steve Blass worked his ass off to find himself again. The Pirates would put him back in, and a disaster would ensue. It happened multiple times. You know, the opposing team would make 8 runs in the first inning or whatever. There is an absolutely terrifying quote from Steve Blass, which reminds me of the classic “actor’s nightmare”, which I’ve had – had one recently where I was the lead role in an opera at the Met and I had never had one rehearsal – and the curtain is rising, the house is standing-room-only … I woke up gasping and traumatized. This is what Steve Blass actually experienced, only with the additional awful-ness that he had it ONCE, but now where did it go?? In 1973, as things started to spiral down for Steve Blass, he pitched a game against Atlanta. Angell describes what happened. The Blass quote I am talking about is included:

… Virdon called Blass into the game in the fifth inning, with the Pirates trailing by 8-3. Blass walked the first two men he faced, and gave up a stolen base and a wild pitch and a run-scoring single before retiring the side. In the sixth, Blass walked Darrell Evans. He walked Mike Lum, throwing one pitch behind him in the process, which allowed Evans to move down to second. Dusty Baker singled, driving in a run. Ralph Garr grounded out, Davey Johnson singled, scoring another run. Party Perez walked. Pitcher Ron Reed singled, driving in two more runs, and was wild-pitched to second. Johnny Oates walked. Frank Tepedino singled, driving in two runs, and Steve Blass was finally relieved. His total for the one-and one-third innings were seven runs, five hits, six bases on balls, and three wild pitches.

“It was the worst experience of my baseball life,” Blass told me. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I was embarrassed and disgusted. I was totally unnerved. You can’t imagine the feeling that you suddenly have no idea what you’re doing out there. You have no business being there, performing that way as a major-league pitcher. It was kind of scary.”


No matter what he did, no matter how hard he worked, his pitching had vanished. What does it mean?? How can that happen?

There are many theories (and the theory-part of Angell’s piece is what I will excerpt today), but Blass seems strangely uninterested in theories. Or, not uninterested. Perhaps he just has no faith that understanding why will change the result. And it is in that area that the essay reaches an almost existential level of profundity. Everyone wants reasons for things. But maybe once you find the reason, nothing will change anyway. Or maybe the reasons are multiple, a proliferation of reasons. Is worrying about it how you want to spend your life? Steve Blass was a nice guy, everyone loved him, but people did wonder if he was uncomfortable going deep, so to speak. Psychologically, I mean. But still: Blass seemed to know (and only he could know, since he was the one going through it) that figuring out why wouldn’t change a damn thing.

An interesting fact: his accuracy was fine when he threw the ball to a catcher during practice, when there was no batter there. So something about the batter stepping into the picture changed him. That was a fact. But … understanding that that was a fact still did not change the downward spiral.

The whole piece ends in a suddenly very-moving way, when Angell and Blass sit around at Blass’ house, drinking beer, and Angell, fascinated by the mechanics/psychology of pitching, sets up a hypothetical game with a hypothetical lineup, and has Blass explain his thought process up on the mound. Fantastic, and yet strangely tragic, as you remember that Blass is no longer a pitcher.

It’s one of the best essays on baseball I’ve ever read.

Here’s an excerpt.

Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick; ‘Gone For Good’, by Roger Angell

Blass once told me that there were “at least seventeen” theories about the reason for his failure. A few of them are bromides: He was too nice a guy. He became smug and was no longer hungry. He lost the will to win. His pitching motion, so jittery and unclassical, at last let him down for good. His eyesight went bad. (Blass is myopic, and wears glasses while watching television and driving. He has never worn glasses when pitching, which meant that Pirate catchers had to flash him signals with hand gestures rather than finger waggles; however, he saw well enough to win when he was winning, and his vision has not altered in recent years.) The other, more serious theories are sometimes presented alone, sometimes in conjunction with others. Answers here become more gingerly.

He was afraid of injury – afraid of being struck by a line drive.

Blass was injured three times while on the mound. He cracked a thumb when fielding a grounder in 1966. He was struck on the right forearm by a ball hit by Joe Torre in 1970, and spend a month on the disabled list. While trying for his twentieth victory in his last start in 1972, he was hit on the point of the elbow of his pitching arm by a line drive struck by the Mets’ John Milner; he had to leave the game, but a few days later he pitched that first playoff game for the Pirates and won it handily. (Blass’s brother-in-law, John Lamb, suffered a fractured skull when hit by a line drive in spring training in 1971, and it was more than a year before he recovered, but Blass’s real pitching triumphs all came after that.)

He was afraid of injuring someone – hitting a batter with a fastball.

Blass did hit a number of players in his career, of course, but he never caused anyone to go on the disabled list or, for that matter, to miss even one day’s work. He told me that he did not enjoy brushing back hitters but had done so when it was obviously called for. During his decline, he was plainly unable to throw the fastball effectively to batters – especially to Pirate batters in practice. He says he hated the idea of hitting and possibly sidelining one of his teammates, but he is convinced that this anxiety was the result of his control problems rather than the cause.

He was seriously affected by the death of Roberto Clemente.

There is no doubt but that the sudden taking away of their most famous and vivid star affected all the Pirates, including Steve Blass. He and Clemente had not been particularly close, but Blass was among the members of the team who flew at once to Puerto Rico for the funeral services, where Blass delivered a eulogy in behalf of the club. The departure of a superstar leaves an almost visible empty place on a successful team, and the leaders next in line – who in this case would certainly include Steve Blass – feel the inescapable burden of trying to fill the gap. A Clemente, however, can never be replaced. Blass never pitched well in the majors after Clemente’s death. This argument is a difficult one, and is probably impossible to resolve. There are Oedipal elements here, of course, that are attractive to those who incline in such a direction.

He fell into a slump, which led to an irreparable loss of confidence.

This is circular, and perhaps more a description of symptoms than of the disability itself. However, it is a fact that a professional athlete – and most especially a baseball player – faces a much more difficult task in attempting to regain lost form than an ailing businessman, say, or even a troubled artist; no matter how painful his case has been, the good will of his associates or the vagaries of critical judgment matter not at all when he tries to return. All that matters is his performance, which will be measured, with utter coldness, by the stats. This is one reason that athletes are paid so well, and one reason that fear of failure – the unspeakable “choking” – is their deepest and most private anxiety. Steve Blass passed over my questions about whether he had ever felt this kind of fear when on the mound. “I don’t think pitchers, by their nature, allow themselves to think that way,” he said. “To be successful, you turn that kind of thought away.” On the other hand, he often said that two or three successive well-pitched games probably would have been all he needed to dissipate the severe tension that affected his performances once things began to go badly for him. They never came.

The remaining pieces of evidence (if, indeed, they have any part in the mystery) have been recounted here. Blass is a modest man, both in temperament and in background, and his success and fame were quite sudden and, to some degree, unexpected. His salary at the beginning of 1971 – the year of his two great Series wins – was forty-thousand dollars; two years later, it was ninety thousand, and there were World Series and playoff checks on top of that. Blass was never thought of as one of the great pitchers of his time, but in the late sixties and early seventies he was probably the most consistent starter on the Pirate staff; it was, in fact, a staff without stars. On many other teams, he would have been no more than the second- or third-best starter, and his responsibilities, real and imagined, would have been less acute.

I took some of these hard questions to Blass’ colleagues. Danny Murtagh and Bill Virdon (who is now the Yankees’ pilot) both expressed their admiration for Blass but said they had no idea what happened to him. They seemed a bit brusque about it, but then I realized, of course, that ballplayers are forever disappearing from big-league dugouts; the manager’s concern is with those who remain – with today’s lineup. “I don’t know the answer,” Bill Virgin told me in the Yankee clubhouse. “If I did, I’d get Steve to pitch for me. He sure won a lot of big games for us on the Pirates.”

Joe Brown said, “I’ve tried to keep my distance and not to guess too much about what happened. I’m not a student of pitching and I’m not a psychologist. You can tell a man what to do, but you can’t make him do it. Steve is an outstanding man, and you hate to quit on him. In this business, you bet on character. Big-league baseball isn’t easy, yet you can stand it when things are going your way. But Steve Blass never had a good day in baseball after this thing hit him.”

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9 Responses to The Books: Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker; edited by David Remnick; ‘Gone For Good’, by Roger Angell

  1. Jaquandor says:

    Just a tangential note: In the early 90s the Pirates had a player — a utility infielder, maybe, not a star — named Blas Minor. So one of the radio guys there quipped, “If he’s Blas Minor, does Steve Blass become Blass Major?”

  2. Thanks for that post Sheila…I think anyone who has ever played a sport and had any talent at all can relate somewhat to the mystery of performance. When I played regularly I had days when I could hit a baseball or shoot a basket ball as well as anyone alive. Maybe one day a year. And the next day, especially–before you got used to being who you really were again!–was always frustrating! WHY CAN’T I DO WHAT DID YESTERDAY? I’m sure it’s the same way with actors to at least some degree.

    But to get to the top of the mountain as Blass did and have it desert you forever? Overnight? For no discernible reason? That’s beyond heartbreak.

    • sheila says:

      I know – it’s such a mystery – One of Blass’ pals said that it was telling that once he “lost it”, Blass no longer had any emotion of pitching. Before, if he had a bad day, he would throw a tantrum, throw shit around. But after he “lost it”, he stopped. He had no more emotion about his pitching – it was out of his control.

  3. Dg says:

    Not sure if you posted about the book “The Art of Fielding” last year but it was great read dealing with a similar situation from a fictional standpoint.
    While the Blass story is tragic, the fact that he has been able to make a living all these years later by announcing the game he obviously loves, well, I consider him a lucky man.

    • sheila says:

      Dg – I haven’t read The Art of Fielding – thank you for the recommendation! I’ve heard great things about that book.

      I agree with you about Blass – it seems that he feels the same way.

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