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On the anniversary of Willie Stargell's Hall of Fall election
Lack of playing ability did not diminish my love of sports as a kid. I never harbored dreams of playing basketball or baseball professionally, but I am an avid, loud and engaged sports fan. How do you know that you are a fan? When do you cross the line from interested to committed, such that your life, your activities, your wardrobe, and your home décor are focused around a sports team? The exact moment is frequently clouded by tears, your heart broken by a team that you know will return again, next season, deserving of another shot at your affections. A fan – diminutive of “fanatic” - has a context for life, a time and place and a published schedule in which to share misery and joy. When cheering in the stands for the home team, the people next to you aren't the strangers your mother warned you about but rather your temporary best friends.
I didn't became a sports fan until October 11, 1972, a month after turning 10 years old. Details of that afternoon are so indelibly stamped on my psyche that they are the foundation for the last twenty years of yelling at the TV. Despite growing up within a 90 minute drive of New York, the Miracle Mets and the long-held Yankee tradition didn't do it for me. Emulating my best friends Glenn and Scott was more enjoyable, so I grew up following the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Sitting on the floor of their house that fall afternoon, we watched the Pittsburgh Pirates lose to the Cincinnati Reds in the fifth game of baseball's National League Championship Series. I had not seen too many of my friends' parents cry, for any reason, but that afternoon was a watershed. First time I ever felt profound sadness over a sporting event. First time I was sorry that a season was over for a team that I truly loved, as a boy can before he discovers heartbreak . When our teams lose, we lose. I tried to explain this to a co-worker once, when I kept looking over her head to check a Yankees score in the middle of a pennant race . I failed. I think you have to experience that pain.
The Pirates were led in spirit and physical performance by their left fielder, Wilver Dornell Stargell. Known as Willie Stargell in the sports pages and “Pops” to his teammates, he wore #8 and a smile every single day that he played for 21 seasons. Stargell was my first sports hero. On the surface, it was easy for me to identify with Stargell: he batted and threw left-handed, like me, he was a slow runner (17 stolen bases in his entire career, less than one a season), and he genuinely loved playing the game.
Statistics about Willie Stargell abound: He was the first, and one of only two players to hit a ball out – completely out – of Dodger Stadium. A seat in the 500-level of Montreal's Olympic baseball stadium, former home of the Expos, was painted gold after being dinged by a Stargell home run. Staggeringly long home runs were a staple of his baseball diet. Stargell played all 21 of his seasons for the Pirates; fewer than ten other players have played more than two decades in one place. Only a literal handful of batters have hit eleven homers in the month of April, when the season is young and the pitchers are still daunting. The nickname “Pops” was one of respect and admiration, a senior spokesman in and around the clubhouse.
The Pirates of 1979 went from last place to a World Series win, powered by Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” in song, but Stargell’s insistence on inclusion and recognizing diversity in his clubhouse. That year he won the National League MVP, the National League Championship MVP, and the World Series MVP - the only player to earn all three in a single season. As a high school senior, Willie Stargell and baseball were fading in the left-center field gap by my ability to drive, girls, and college applications, and that Fall Classic win completed the main sequence of my daily fascination.
It was, I found out much later, the beginning of quite a few professional lessons.
What I knew about Stargell as a kid came from the backs of Topps baseball cards, the cardboard encyclopedia that provided me with trivia and insight, a one-liner and cartoon at a time. From the hideously bad contrasting type on those cards, I knew that he was born in Oklahoma, and that he made his major league debut on September 16, 1962, when I was less than a week old. Baseball cards were my link to the intersection of math and sports before ESPN and the Internet. The first business deal of my life was trading my older cousins a variety of Mets and Yankees stars for a Willie Stargell card that pre-dated my fascination with cardboard.
Value is relative, I learned, and value is earned over time.
Stargell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 12, 1988, the only member of that class. Along with Roberto Clemente, he has a statue outside of PNC Park, the smaller, more friendly field that replaced the Three Rivers Stadium of his playing days. Sadly he passed away the morning of Opening Day, 2001, two days after the statue’s unveiling but the first day the a new generation of fans could celebrate him.
Using the budding Internet learn this news, I began tracing his supernova backwards:
Stargell owned “Chicken on the Hill,” a fried chicken place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Baseball players had to work in the offseason; playing was a privilege and expressly seasonal employment. If he hit a home run during a home game, the restaurant would treat everyone seated for dinner. It makes Mark Cuban’s 100-point chalupa games pale in comparison.
He truly loved what he did, a work goal I have echoed and repeated in books and words by Kevin Carroll. Stargell phrased it with Yogi Berra eloquence: You have to have fun; the man says “Play Ball” not “Work Ball”. Speaking at Stargell’s funeral, Reds player Joe Morgan said that of the 600 players in the league in their time as contemporaries, the other 599 all loved Willie Stargell. That is the definition of respect for attitude and leadership, not accomplishments.
He extended his career by doing what needed doing – when his knees limited his range of motion, he moved out of left field to first base, an unusual spot for a lefty fielder. But his wisdom, his leadership, and his fear-inspiring batting dismissed the conventional wisdom.
“Stargell Stars” were the first small reward for a job well done, whether leadership or in play. These embroidered stars were sewn onto helmets; any internet search for Kent Tekulve reveals his retro style bucket hat covered in a small galaxy of gold and black stars. Small rewards for big play have been a key part of my employee recognition. My favorite was my friend Alexei’s use of L’Amourette chocolate bars (in a multitude of funky flavors) to publicly acknowledge great engineering feats.
When I started playing beer league hockey, I was rostered as number 8 for a decade. As my son Ben began playing sports, I explained my historical and recent fascination with Willie Stargell, and the backstory of a closet full of 16” embroidered snowmen. Yes, that’s also the genesis of the “Snowman” nickname. Ben picked up the family number as well, a bit of family history preserved.
One of my first blog entries on blogs.sun.com (now defunct) talked about the influence Stargell had on my basic work principles: work hard, be loyal, have fun. I received in reply an email from his niece, telling me stories of how she and her cousins always asked Willie for stars, not autographs or baseballs, and how he was truly a gentle giant of a man. Shortly after a small package with my own Stargell star arrived, my reward for sharing insight about a man I had only observed in real life from the 100 level seats.
Sports heroes have a way of connecting generations; we tell stories about adversity, leadership and accomplishments, knowing some fraction of them will be retained, and later resurface to be told in a new context. Heroes draw figurative lines through the family tree. My Uncle Ziemel once wrote that “nothing is lost to us as long as our children remember to search for it.” His Passover reference predated the Internet by 30 years but sets pretext for the real closure to the story.
A highlight of one of Ben’s summers at camp was a trip to Cooperstown to visit the Hall of Fame. Days later, a postcard arrived, Willie Stargell’s Hall of Fame plaque on the front, and on the back, simply, “I found him!” He remembered the search, and ideally, will retell this story of the vector of eights, the rough cut star, and loyalty, inclusion and hard work personified.