Saying Good-bye to 'Pops'

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Willie Stargell sits with his son, Willie Jr., in the Pirates dugout in 1978

During baseball season, I am often reminded how easy it is to eulogize summer afternoons spent in the majestic embrace of ballparks like Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field — memories of those storied parks always seem to wear a patina of easy grace. Evincing rose-colored memories of childhood Sundays in the hulking concrete-and-Astroturf confines of Three Rivers Stadium, on the other hand, requires either a certain predisposition to sentimentality or early-onset memory loss.

Happily, I am prone to both conditions, and I remember my childhood excursions to Three Rivers with great pleasure. My family — or more often, my father, my brother and I — would pile into the car, make the quick trip downtown, and park just across the river from the stadium, where we'd walk across the Fort Duquesne bridge, past the statues of Roberto Clemente and Art Rooney.

I remember the mingled smells of hot dogs, popcorn and beer that haunted the cool corridors, the big guys hawking programs. I remember the sense of excitement I felt as we made our way to our seats (always located in the family section, a custom that left me ill-prepared for the drunkenness and profanity I later encountered in the bleachers at big-city ballparks). I remember the July sun beating down, and the cheers of fans, happy to be watching their Pirates play ball.

But most of all, I remember Willie Stargell.

"Pops," as he was known, was a burly, intimidating presence, whose command of a bat was widely rumored to send opposing pitchers into pre-game hysterics. He wore his team's odd, cylindrical hat with more than style than one might have thought possible. He led us to the 1979 World Championship, simultaneously leading us in rousing choruses of Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," the unofficial Pirates theme song. He was a palpable presence at Three Rivers, guarding the team, and, I always suspected, the city itself, from unseen dangers.

Roberto Clemente died before I was born; I don't have much experience dealing with the passing of hometown legends. So when I learned that Stargell had died Monday morning after a long battle with kidney disease, I was at something of a loss. Am I fit to accurately remember a man who played his greatest seasons when I was in grade school?

I'm no baseball aficionado — the significance of statistics generally escapes me, and I prefer stories about players' personal tics to even the most thrilling play-by-play commentary. But as someone who grew up in Pittsburgh, I am well aware of the basic facts, which were as indelibly imprinted on my childhood psyche as the indisputable superiority of Heinz ketchup over all other brands.

Willie Stargell was a spectacular hitter, racking up 475 homers over his career. He was a leader in the dugout and in the locker room, and the city loved him for it. But perhaps even more than it loved Stargell's prowess on the field, Pittsburgh loved his easy manner, his civic boosterism, his infectious dedication to the game. In Pittsburgh, which is often characterized as the ultimate football town, true dedication to baseball is a triumph in and of itself.

For those of us who grew up in the glory days of Pirate baseball, Stargell was the ultimate champion — he embodied the game, and showed us how great the game could be. Last October, 18 years after his retirement, Stargell returned to Pittsburgh to say good-bye to Three Rivers Stadium, where he'd emerged from Clemente's long shadow and hit his stride as a home run hitter. As a frail Stargell cast his gaze around the concrete bowl that had seen his glory days, he waved weakly to a rapturous crowd, and smiled behind his tears.

Three Rivers was demolished in February to make room for the city's celebrated new PNC Park — where the grass is real and the bleachers are old-fashioned aluminum. And a statue of Stargell, bat in hand, stands watch over his team, and the city that loved him.