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Cook: Pirates' family mourns death of beloved Pops

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Sean Casey was a baby when Willie Stargell was in his prime, a child of 5 when Stargell hit his Game 7 home run to beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1979 World Series. He was too young to pick Stargell as his baseball hero the way the previous generation of Pittsburgh kids had.

"But I did do the windmill thing with my bat in our Wiffle Ball games," Casey said, grinning.

This was yesterday, not long after news of Stargell's death broke, hours before Casey and his Cincinnati Reds would play the Pirates in the first regular-season game at PNC Park. Casey had no idea he would be the game's star, hitting the first home run, finishing with four hits and five RBIs, leading the Reds to an 8-2 win even as he was disappointing thousands of fans in his old hometown. He was thinking about Stargell and an opportunity lost.

"I had a chance to stand next to him in spring training once," Casey said. "I wanted so badly to say something to him, but I was too nervous. I was just a rookie, and he was Willie Stargell. Now, I wish I had gone up to him."

It was Stargell's loss, too, in a sense. He would have loved Casey, loved the chance to talk a little ball with him. Casey is a lot like he was, not necessarily a Hall of Famer who will hit 475 home runs, but a great kid with a moment and a good word for everyone, enormous talent and a passion for the game. You think all of today's players are overpaid, underappreciative crybabies? You, too, have never met Casey, who realizes how lucky he is to pull on a uniform every day and is thankful for it. Stargell would have enjoyed watching him take his hacks yesterday. He would have wished it had been Brian Giles with those five RBIs -- he was a Pirate, after all -- but he would have been thrilled for Casey.

"I just wish he could have been here today," Casey said, quietly.

The kid wasn't alone there. This was supposed to be one of the greatest days in Pirates' history. It doesn't seem quite fair that it also will be remembered as one of the saddest.

Never mind the stroke that took Stargell. The thought he might take away from an opening day would have killed him. It's safe to say he left this world kicking and screaming.

"He lived for a day like this," Lloyd McClendon said.

Sitting in the sun at the ballpark. Seeing the grass. Hearing the crack of the bat. Watching great young talent such as Giles and Casey playing the greatest game of all.

Stargell would have especially enjoyed yesterday because it was McClendon's first home game as Pirates manager. Stargell pushed him hard for the job, not because McClendon is a black man, but because he's a communicator, a positive person, a strong-willed man who refuses to give in to excuses or defeat. Stargell would have loved to have played for him. He would have been so proud to see the sellout crowd stand and greet McClendon warmly during the pre-game introductions, just as big Pittsburgh crowds had done for him so many times.

"We talked a lot," McClendon said. "Many times, it wasn't even about baseball. We would talk about how the game had changed so much for young black players, the wonderful opportunities it presents for minorities today. Willie had a lot to do with that. I'm here today because of him in a lot of ways."

Stargell paid his dues after breaking into pro ball in 1959.

"I had my life threatened many times," he said in 1997. "I had a shotgun placed against my head in Plainview, Texas. They told me they would blow my brains out if I played that night ...

"Things happened that made you feel so inhuman. You couldn't eat in the front of the restaurants. You had to use separate bathrooms. There were different water fountains. Some people wouldn't even serve you, period.

"If you wanted to make it, you had to go out and play and get beyond all that."

Stargell's love for the game -- "I was so proud that not once did I throw my uniform on the floor," he said -- enabled him to endure. Wondrous talent made him a Hall of Famer. All of those home runs and his "We-are-family" personality made him a Pittsburgh sports icon. If Roberto Clemente ranks as the Pirates' most popular player, Stargell is 1A. How cool is it that they are immortalized now outside PNC Park, their statues separated by no more than half a football field?

It's not surprising Stargell's stunning statue was the most popular spot yesterday. Some fans looked at it and cried. Others smiled, remembering the many hot summer nights when Stargell answered Bob Prince's plea to "spread some chicken on the Hill with Will." Dozens of flowers were placed at the base. A sign that read, "There is no family without Pops."

"This is a sad day, but also a great day," Chuck Tanner said.

He was the Pirates' manager during much of Stargell's career and remained a close friend. He was one of the few people to know how much Stargell suffered from high blood pressure and kidney failure.

"I'll tell you why this is a great day," Tanner said. "It's great because from now on, for the next 100 years, people are going to think about Willie on opening day. They'll say, 'This is the day Willie went to the mansion.' They'll never forget him."

It's nice to think Stargell will have an impact on the game long after he is gone. It's nice to think it's not too late for some of those overpaid, underappreciative players to learn something from him. If they need a living, breathing role model, they need only to look at Casey.

"The umpire always says, 'Play ball!,' doesn't he? He never says, 'Work ball!' " Stargell always said.

"If you don't have a smile on your face every day in this game, there's something wrong with you."

Forget that bad heart and bad kidneys.

There never was anything wrong with Willie Stargell.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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