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SOME KIND OF A COMEBACK
William Leggett
October 25, 1971
Roberto Clemente and a no-name crew of pitchers Pirated away a World Series that mighty Baltimore had all but banked
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October 25, 1971

Some Kind Of A Comeback

Roberto Clemente and a no-name crew of pitchers Pirated away a World Series that mighty Baltimore had all but banked

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The 1971 World Series had been over for 10 minutes, and Steve Blass stood atop Manager Danny Murtaugh's desk in the visitors' clubhouse at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, exuberant over the 2-1 seventh-game victory he had just pitched against the Orioles. Blass was asked if he had received one of those phone calls, so fashionable these days, from someone holding high political office. "I certainly did," Blass replied. "It was from the First Selectman of Falls Village, Conn. He congratulated me and I told him I was darn proud to be a part of the Pittsburgh no-name pitching staff."

Eight days before, the Pirates had entered the Series about as underdog as a team can get. After three more days they were down by two games, and obviously the odds had been too short, if anything. But now they were the World Champions. In a wild turnabout, they won four of the last five games and the gritty, hustling Pirates became the third Pittsburgh team in 47 years to win a World Series. They had produced a hero of major proportions in Roberto Clemente, who got 12 hits, including two home runs, a triple and two doubles, and fielded another just as impressive in Blass, the perfect pitcher to face Baltimore in the two games the Pirates had to win.

With two outs in the eighth inning of the final game and the Pirates holding a 2-1 lead, Blass was in serious trouble. Baltimore had the tying run 90 feet from home with Dave Johnson at bat. Pirate Catcher Manny Sanguillen walked to the mound and talked briefly to his pitcher. Then the 29-year-old Blass turned one of his many slow circles around the mound. "Those circles," he said after the game, "were previews of what is probably going to turn out to be a bad stomach." But he took a deep breath, threw a curve to the plate, and Johnson grounded to shortstop to end Baltimore's last good chance to win a second straight Series.

Until the deciding game, the 68th Series had taken on all the aspects of one of those National Basketball Association playoffs in which the home team always seems to win. The Orioles grabbed the first two games in Baltimore, lost the next three in Pittsburgh and then won the sixth game back home. But the Home Sweet Home refrain turned sour at last.

When it was all over, Baltimore's Earl Weaver delivered himself of a tortured soliloquy. "It wasn't quite as upsetting as when we lost to the Mets in 1969," he said. "And I still think we're the best damn team in baseball, even though we lost the seventh game to the Pirates. We'll be back here again. We'll win 100 games next year. Oh hell, what I'm really thinking and not saying is that it wouldn't be too bad an idea to just paint the fence and plow the tomatoes under."

The Orioles got plowed under when Willie Stargell, the slumbering giant of the Monongahela, opened the eighth inning with a single through the middle that scooted just beneath Shortstop Mark Belanger's glove, thus defeating Baltimore's defensive overshift. Jose Pagan, next up, hit a fly ball to deep center field that went over the head of Merv Rettenmund; Rettenmund juggled the ball as it rebounded from the fence, and Stargell never stopped running. He roared home, beating a relay throw that never arrived because First Baseman Boog Powell cut it off. Baltimore may long wonder whether Powell's big mitt should have intervened, but Stargell almost certainly would have beaten the throw in any event. He was home with the winning run.

"I'm so happy about the way this turned out," Stargell said later. "When it began you would have thought the Pittsburgh Pirates were nothing more than the invited guests at the St. Valentine's Day massacre."

Pittsburgh's first run came on a homer by Clemente, who hit .414 in the Series and proved again, as if he needed to, that on certain days he belongs in a higher league than anyone else. In a classic Series, he was the classic player.

Baltimore itself was thinking in terms of classicism when it survived all sorts of tragedy to win on Saturday and force the Series into a seventh game. The dramatic sixth, in fact, was really the first game that both teams played well. From the fifth inning on, it was a remarkably thrilling thing to watch.

Jim Palmer started for the Orioles, gave up one run and then another to Clemente, naturally, on a homer. When Baltimore finally got two men on in the fifth inning—only the second time that Pittsburgh's faceless pitching staff had allowed that many Orioles on base in 32 innings—Baltimoreans hesitantly began to stir. But the Orioles failed to score, and Weaver went through a weird hat trick. He slammed his cap on the dugout wall three times. "I was so frustrated I was ready to try anything," he said. "I was trying to break a seam in the cap. I had a 16-straight cap going for me [the extent of Baltimore's winning streak before it lost the third game of the Series], and somebody stole it off the desk in my office. We went to Pittsburgh and lost three in a row. After I threw the cap the third time I went into our clubhouse and got myself an old beat-up cap, put it on and when I came out with it in the sixth inning Don Buford hit a home run."

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