Stargell happy to be teaching young players

April 23, 1991|By Kamon Simpson | Kamon Simpson,Knight-Ridder News Service

MACON, Ga. -- He sits alone in the stands beside the home team's dugout, hours before the first group of fans arrive, watching the Macon Braves take batting practice. He sits alone, but he is hardly undisturbed.

One by one, the players walk over to where he sits. They seek him out, some smiling, others very serious, but all quite respectful. He is waiting there with advice. They are all eager to accept the words of wisdom, without question. They are not only his students, they are also fans.

Many grew up watching Willie "Pops" Stargell, an outfielder and first baseman for 22 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates who is in his third year as a roving hitting instructor in the Atlanta Braves' minor-league organization. Now they have the opportunity to learn from his experience.

"This game gave me a lot over the years, so I feel fortunate to be able to give something back," Stargell said. "It's not just about teaching them how to swing the bat. So much of this game, so much about being successful, happens from the neck up.

"If one of these guys gets off to a slow start, it becomes important for someone like myself to go to that player and say, 'You know, I had some slow starts, too, when I was playing.' The thing I like to remind them is that I'd rather be making outs on the field than not be on the field at all."

Stargell takes great pride in being honest with his players, and his main rule of thumb is to be consistent in everything he instructs. Since becoming a coach for the Pirates in 1985 (he followed manager Chuck Tanner to the Braves the next season), his vast lesson plan has not changed a great deal. The same consistency marked his career as a player.

He was a seven-time National League All-Star and finished with 475 home runs, tied for 15th on the all-time list with Stan Musial. In 1971, he enjoyed perhaps his finest season, batting .295 with 48 home runs and 125 RBI and leading the Pirates to the world championship. In 1979, he captured his second world championship with the Pirates and was named National League co-MVP along with Keith Hernandez of the St. Louis Cardinals.

In 1987, Stargell received his greatest honor, becoming the 17th player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first try. Four years later, he remains in awe of the situation. He has become a living piece of history of the game he holds so sacred.

"I never wanted to be considered great," he said. "I just wanted to be consistent every year. That's how I tried to play the game. I didn't play to make the Hall of Fame. I don't see how anyone could play that way. But to have that honor, it's . . . well, it's still sinking in.

"As a ballplayer, you know of the immortal ones, the Ty Cobbs and the Tris Speakers. You're standing there in front of those halls and you start to realize the history of the game and how long it's been around. A lot of people don't realize that the day General Custer died at Little Big Horn there was a baseball game being played in Chicago. I'm proud to be a part of something that has survived and thrived for so long."

He gives of himself now, giving to the game of baseball. Married men in the sport sometimes call baseball their girlfriend. Stargell, who is single, recites the old phrase and declares it completely true in his case. At one time, he had aspirations of someday becoming a manager.

"Now, I don't know," he says. "I get more satisfaction out of instructing 100 or so players at this level than I would from 11 or 13 that I'd have at the major league level. Kids get to the big leagues and start making money, and there's only so much you can tell them.

"These kids here, I see that gleam in their eyes, and it's refreshing. People talk about the decline of professional sports. What I see here are good young players who want to go that extra mile.

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