Thursday, April 19, 2007

Heros of my Youth

Living in western Maryland I had little choice but to become a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Steelers. And growing up in the 70's was a great time to be a fan of both teams. The Pirates won two World Series titles in 1971 and 1979...both against the Orioles. I have a friend who is an Orioles fan, and to this day he can't stand to hear Sister Sledge's We Are Family.

The Pirates may have gone back to the World Series in 1972 if not for a 9th inning wild pitch that gave Cincinnati the win. The Pirates also played for the right to go the World Series in 1974 and 1975, losing to the L.A. Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds respectively. Still, though they had a heck of a ride through the 70's, and I was there for it all. I saw them play at 3-Rivers Stadium several times and I was fortunate to see 'The Great One' Roberto Clemente play in his final season.

But for as good as Clemente was...and he was the best ever to play the hero was Willie Stargell. I jumped and hollered when I opened a pack of Topps ball cards one day and there was Willie. He was my hero and I was in love with number 8. He was a giant...albeit a gentle one...and his bat looked like a tree trunk. I used to immitate his trademark 'winding up' of his bat before the pitcher threw the ball.

I never missed a Pirates game on the tube...okay, homework and chores came first. And many was the night I went to sleep listening to Pirate games on the radio. Bob Prince...the outlandish voice of the Pirates brought all the action home. And there were a lot of times that the Buccos would be down and Prince would calmly state that they were coming back. Many times they did, and it was usually Willie that led the comeback.

In 21 years, Willie had 2,232 hits, batted .282 for his career, and hit 475 homeruns. Some one once said Willie's 475...laid end to end...stretched further than Hank Aaron's 755. But what drew me to Willie was that he was a gentle man and a good human being, first...a ball player second.

If he ever griped about not making enough money it wasn't in public, he never whined to be traded or any of that other nonsense that many of today's high-priced players do with regularity, and there was never anything bad said about him in the arrests, no fights outside a bar, no nothing.

Willie carried himself with class and dignity. He played for the same team for 21 years and earned his spot in Cooperstown. I cried the day Willie died. I was 41 at the time.

I can't end this post without giving a shout out to my other boys...the Pittsburgh Steelers...and my favorite Steeler of all...Jack Lambert. I first started rooting for the Steelers in 1969...when they couldn't fight their way out of an outhouse. But I stuck around and they rewarded my loyality by going on a 10-year rampage through the NFL from 1972-1982. Along the way they won their division more times than I can count and won 4...count 'em 4 Super Bowls. Super Bowl IX, X, XIII, and XIV.

It didn't take long for me to pick my favorite Steeler. in 1974 they drafted this skinny kid out of Kent State and made him their middle linebacker. Most said Lambert was too small to play the position. How wrong they were...Lambert not only played the position he embodied it...bloodied, screaming, snarling, feet pumping. He was @#$! on wheels and he hit like a runaway freight train. Only fools tried to run at number 58, the rest tried to run away from him, but he simply ran them down. And don't ever make the mistake of talking smack around him...ask Cliff Harris of the Dallas Cowboys. Harris made the mistake of taunting Steelers kicker Roy Gerela after a missed field goal attempt in Super Bowl X and Lambert tossed him to the turf like a rag doll.

Every Sunday I'd flop on the couch and pray for the offense to score quick so I could watch Lambert, Mean Joe Greene and the rest of the Steel Curtain pound another opponent into the turf...especially if that opponent was the Cleveland Browns. Lambert and the Steelers are hated in Cleveland. Don't believe me? Go to Cleveland...any busy street corner will do and yell 'Go Steelers,' or yell Lambert's name. I'll come visit you in the Intensive Care Ward afterwards.

All good things must come to an end and so it was with the Steelers of my youth. The wins didn't come quite as often, and as the years passed the greats like: Bradshaw, Greene, Blount, Harris, Webster, Bleier, Russell...and Lambert retired,leaving me with a treasure trove of memories.

Today, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a championship team again, winning Super Bowl XL. While I'm proud...beyond words...and while I wish them continued success, I'll always look back to an earlier my boys...the Steelers of my youth, and the player I admired more than the rest: DA MAN, #58.

Sitting on my Lambert Jersey is my autographed mini-helmet and a photo of Jack signing my helmet.

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