The Pittsburgh Pirates had high hopes for Steve Blass, a young right-hander with pinpoint accuracy, when they signed him straight out of high school in 1960.
Blass pitched in the minors for five years before making his first start for the Pirates against legendary Hall of Fame hurler Don Drysdale in Dodger Stadium on May 18, 1964, tossing a seven-hitter on his way to a 4-2 victory — the first of 103 wins during his mysteriously abbreviated career.
“It was a dream come true,” he said after posting his first major-league win.
The young native of Canaan, Connecticut, finished the season at 5-8 with an ERA of 4.04. Sent back to the minors in 1965, Blass was to determined to stay when he was called up again in 1966.
For the next seven years, Blass was a staple in the Pirates pitching rotation — posting a remarkable 18-6 record in 1968 — and leading the talent-laden Bucs, led by the immortal Roberto Clemente and thunderously sturdy home run hitter Willie Stargell, to three division crowns and a 1971 World Series championship.
Blass, who always sported an easygoing grin, threw a masterful three-hitter against the Orioles in game 3, enabling the Bucs to turn the series around with a 3-1 victory, and topped it off by throwing a nearly flawless four-hitter in the seventh game to give the Pirates their first world championship since 1960.
Blass, who went 15-8 that year with a luminous ERA of 2.85, had uncanny throwing precision — and walked fewer than two batters per nine innings throughout his career.
Manny Sanguillen, his longtime catcher, once remarked that Blass could divide home plate into thirds. “That made my job much easier,” said Sanguillen. “Both of us knew exactly where the ball would be pitched. He was so precise, I felt I could catch Steve Blass while sitting in a rocking chair.”
Everybody agreed. Blass, standing sixty feet away, could throw the ball “through a spot the size of a drink coaster, pitch after pitch,” said one sportswriter.
Blass had a phenomenal season in 1972, the year after the Pirates won the World Series, posting 19 wins and a 2.49 earned run average. It was arguably his best season ever.
That’s when everything inexplicably changed. Blass could no longer throw a ball over the plate. He literally lost all control, frequently throwing the ball behind batters. Tragically, he couldn’t find the strike zone if his life depended on it.
The first signs of a problem were revealed during spring training in 1973.
“Some of his pitches went out of the batting cage. Instead of being six inches outside, some of his pitches were six feet outside. He was hitting batters and throwing behind them. At first, I thought it was a joke,” said a chagrined Joe L. Brown, the Pirates General Manager.
“In the bullpen he could throw all of his pitches where he wanted them,” continued Brown. “However, when a batter stood in while he was warming up, he would bounce the ball in the dirt, throw it over the catcher’s head or throw it behind the batter.”
Everybody was mystified, but no one as much as Blass himself, whose throwing arm, he said, felt better than ever.
After posting a 3-9 record with an ERA of 9.81 in 1973, the Pirates reluctantly sent him down to the minors where he continued on his downward spiral. Things got so bad, according to one sportswriter, that he actually prayed that he wouldn’t be sent into games.
Overwhelmed by anxiety, Blass sought help from doctors, coaches, psychologists and even hypnotists, but nothing seemed to help.
Still unable to find the strike zone, he retired the following year after pitching only five innings for the Pirates.
It was a terribly sad ending to what had been a sensational career.
By 1975, Blass — still in the prime of his career — was working as a traveling salesman, peddling rings for Jostens, the world-famous supplier of yearbooks and class rings.
His enigmatic affliction was later commonly referred to as the “Steve Blass Disease” or syndrome, an affliction suffered by many others before and since the Pirate great lost all control of his throwing arm.
Dontrelle Willis, the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year whose once-promising future on the mound cratered after winning 22 games for the Marlins in 2005 and finishing as runner-up in the National League Cy Young Award balloting, seems to be the most recent victim. Wills, who’s perhaps best known for his unconventional pitching style, is currently attempting a comeback with the Louisville Bats, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds in the International League. He currently boasts a 4-2 record and an ERA of .251.
Blass, 69, is currently a popular broadcast color analyst for the Pirates.