Nine years ago, Hall-of-Famer Willie Stargell sat in the Diamond and told stories.
Willie Stargell died hours before the Pittsburgh Pirates played their first game in their new ballpark, the one with the 12-foot-tall statue of Willie Stargell in front of it.
When I heard the 61-year-old Stargell was dead, the image that came to my mind wasn't Stargell in Three Rivers Stadium, in the sunshine, in the fashion-challenged uniforms and bumble-bee-striped hats the Pirates wore when Pops Stargell was the team's star and stabilizing force. What came to mind was Stargell in the Diamond's press box on rainy night in 1992.
The wind was slamming sheets of rain against the right-field fence. But a canceled game means lost revenue to a minor-league baseball franchise, so the Braves were believing the weatherman, who kept saying the storm would pass in a few minutes.
Warm and dry above the field, Stargell waited for what, the thousandth? the millionth? rain delay of his baseball career to end. Stargell was long past his playing days then, of course. He had already played his 21 major league seasons. He had already hit his 475 major-league home runs. He had already won his MVP trophies and his World Series rings. He had already earned a place next to Babe Ruth the only other man to hit a baseball completely out of Forbes Field, the Pirates' old home. He was already in baseball's Hall of Fame.
Stargell was also the Atlanta Braves' roving hitting instructor. He was in Richmond to work with a young power hitter named Ryan Klesko. Klesko didn't have the right snap in his wrists, Stargell explained.
Sitting near the press box buffet, holding court while the wind and rain assaulted the infield, Stargell seemed to exude vast and equal amounts of swagger and humility. He talked about island trips and expensive shopping excursions for while. He talked about Klesko's hitting problems for just a minute. Then Willie Stargell talked about his first major league at-bat.
He'd been called up from the Pirates' top farm team the day before, and the three-hour drive to Pittsburgh seemed to take three days, Stargell said. When he got there, he sat on the bench for nearly the whole game. Then the manager told him he was going in as a pinch hitter.
As Stargell walked toward the bat rack, someone on the bench said, "Hey, Rook, don't feel too bad when you strike out."
Stargell, who'd been a major leaguer for just a few hours, walked to the plate determined to prove he deserved to belong to that exclusive fraternity. He would get a hit, Stargell told himself. He would knock the ball out of the park. He would knock the cover off it. He'd show the bench-riders he was a player.
He struck out. He'd do it 1,935 more times before he retired.
"This game will humble you," Stargell told us. "When you least expect it, this game will humble you."
But sometimes, if you listen to the right people, if you pay enough attention, you can get the best of the game, if only for an instant. When the rain stopped and the game resumed, Klesko apparently got the right snap in his wrist. He hit a pitch so hard it was half as high as the light tower beside the giant Marlboro man sign, still climbing, when it disappeared over the right field wall and into the
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