As best as I can remember, the first baseball game I ever attended was sometime in 1968. I say as “best as I can remember” because I really don’t know the exact date. I hate that I can pinpoint the date, but that’s life. All I know is that it was at the “Big A” in Anaheim.
That year my connection to the Angels as a fan was established forever. I became familiar with names like Jim Fregosi, Rick Reichardt and Aurelio Rodriguez. The memories of those early years are etched in stone.
However, it wasn’t until 1971 that baseball really captured my attention and imagination. It all started on a weekend afternoon when I tuned into the “game of the week” and saw a team who hit the lights out of the baseball. I was watching the Pittsburgh Pirates play and this was when I got my first look at Roberto Clemente and Wilbur (Willie Stargell). I’ll never forget seeing six guys on their team with batting averages above .300 at the time (at least that’s how I remember it).
I became an instant fan. Although I never waivered from my Angels, this Pirate team played a huge role in my development as a fan. My knowledge of baseball began to expand as I began to pay attention to a team not named the Angels for the first time.
I remember standing in my garage with a bat, pretending to be Willie Stargell. I began to mimic his warm up swings. Stargell made huge looping circles with his bat while in the batter’s box. If I remember correctly, he would whip the bat around 8 times before digging in.
In my eyes, Stargell was larger than life. He hit monster homeruns of the tape measure variety and I loved to watch him play.
However, it was Roberto Clemente who truly captured my heart and it’s because of him that I became a closet Pirates fan for many years. Clemente always looked like he was in pain when he was on the field, but it never slowed him down a bit. He was already in his late 30’s by this time and I regret that I never saw him in his prime. Never-the-less, he still had enough game to make me understand I was seeing one of the all-time greats.
I loved to watch him run the bases and that arm of his was something to behold. I marveled at the throws he could make from right field. He threw line drives from deep in the corner all the way to home plate. They were laser like and I wanted to play just like him.
1971 also happened to be the first year the World Series would be played at night; giving kids like myself a chance to watch games after school on television for the first time. I’ll never forget that series as long as I live and even though 2002 will always be the most special World Series for me, 1971 will rank as the most significant.
That year the Baltimore Orioles were the odds on favorites against the Pirates. They boasted four 20 game winners in Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson. Cueller was the only starter with an ERA above 3.00 at 3.08. They had future Hall of Famers like Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Palmer and manager Earl Weaver.
The Pirates had one 19 game winner named Doc Ellis and a 15 game winner named Steve Blass who would become one of my favorites. Most people gave them virtually no chance. After all, even then the old adage was “good pitching beats good hitting.” Every time I hear that saying today, I think of 1971.
I remember watching as much of that World Series as I could with my mother and father. It was definitely a family affair. My parents also cheered for the Pirates and I suppose it was simply because I did. I remember telling them everything I knew about each and every player.
I watched the games sitting on the floor. We had a wall furnace that had just enough space between it and the end of the wall, where I would sit with my back against the wall. It was my lucky seat and I sat there every game with my eyes glued to the TV. My dog would lie next to me and run every time I started cheering.
Those were good times.
My 1971 World Series memories included Steve Blass winning two games and Bruce Kison leaving after a game via a helicopter to attend his own wedding. I remember the Bob Robertson homerun where he missed the bunt sign from his third base coach.
I will never forget a “wild man” named Manny Sanguillen who swung at what seemed like every pitch (Vlad Guerrero would remind me of him, years later). It was the first time I ever heard the expression “notorious bad ball hitter.” Sanguillen hit .379 in the series and if it weren’t for Johnny Bench, he might have been considered the best catcher in the game at the time.
Most of all; I remember Roberto Clemente hitting .414 in the Series with two homeruns and a triple and in the process cementing himself as my all-time favorite with his performance.
I also recall Tony Kubek predicting the Pirates would win in seven games (his prediction would be dead on). All the other experts seemed to be picking the Orioles. It made sense; after all, it was their third World Series in as many years and they were the defending champs.
Kubek broadcasted games for NBC for many years, but his prediction was the one thing I remember most about him.
I also remember being what seemed like the only kid in school who was rooting for the Pirates. I had taken a shinning to the under-dogs and I loved every minute of it.
The feelings of anxiety I felt when the Pirates fell behind 2-0 after the first two games is something I can’t forget, along with my stomach being in knots when the Pirates won the 7th game 2-1.
I became so enamored with that team that in 1972 I asked my parents to take me to see them when they visited the Los Angeles Dodgers. It would be my first ever visit to Chavez Ravine.
This is one date I’ve been able to pin down. It was June 9. 1972 and Steve Blass threw a complete game three hitter to improve his record to 7-1; Roberto Clemente had three hits and Stargell added one as well. The Pirates won 5-1 beating Don Sutton and Hoyt Wilhelm. Frank Robinson provided the only homerun. Other players of note in that game included Dodgers Bobby Valentine at 2B, Steve Garvey at 3B (yes 3B), Bill Russell at SS and Bill Buckner at 1B.
Sadly it would be the one and only time I ever saw Clemente play in person. He would die tragically on December 31, 1972 while taking relief supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.
His death had a profound effect on me in that this too cemented his place as my all-time favorite. I remember the sadness I felt when I realized I would never see him play again. Years later in 1997, I would stand outside Three Rivers Stadium to see his statue. Unfortunately, the Pirates were out of town, but I finally made it to the stadium he played in some 25 years later.
I continued to follow the Pirates for many more years. You might even say that some years I followed them a little closer than my own Angels. I even enjoyed their 1979 World Series; the same year the Angels won their first division title (they would fall to the Baltimore Orioles in the AL championship game).
As painful as that year was for many Angel fans; 1979, was a good year for me, all things considered.
Most of the baseball seasons are somewhat of a blur to me. I couldn’t really tell you who won the World Series in the years prior to and surrounding 1971 and 1979 and up until the late 80’s.
All I know is that in many ways all those other years pale in many ways to 1971.