Wednesday, April 11, 2001

'Pops' loved to play, and it showed




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        Bob Zuk's first impression of Willie Stargell was unfavorable. He remembers the late Pittsburgh slugger as a “Toilet Seat Hitter,” a ballplayer whose awesome power was inhibited by his awful posture.

        “His rear end was down so low that I couldn't believe it,” Zuk said. “He couldn't hit that way. I had him stand straight up and hit Wiffle Balls off a tee, and he changed immediately. He was a very, very good listener.”

        Zuk, a senior adviser in the Reds' scouting department, has spent most of his adult life in baseball. Forty-three years after the fact, Stargell remains his signature signing. “Pops” was the first of Zuk's proteges to reach the major leagues and
the first one to be inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame. Stargell's passing has had a profound effect on the old scout.

        “Funerals are really rough on me,” Zuk said Tuesday morning. “I haven't decided whether I'm going to go. I don't think I can handle it.”

Not just a slugger
               Stargell died Monday at the age of 61. Though his death was not sudden, many baseball people were not fully prepared for his loss. Stargell was one of the few sluggers known as much for his humanity as his home runs.

        “When I played, there were 600 baseball players, and 599 of them loved Willie Stargell,” Joe Morgan said last season on ESPN. “He's the only guy I could have said that about.”

        “He had God-given charisma,” Zuk said. “I noticed early that kids gravitated to him. He always had a happy face.”

        Zuk noticed Wilver Dornel Stargell earlier than almost everyone. Before high school players were systematically scouted and subject to a common draft, Zuk went to see a third baseman in Northern California and noticed the kid with the toilet seat stance.

        During a series of workouts at Oakland's San Pablo Park, the 17-year-old Stargell revealed his raw power and his willingness to learn. Zuk prevailed on Pirates management to approve a $1,500 bonus, and he signed Stargell Aug.7, 1958.

        “When I sign kids, I try to work them out in multiple positions,” Zuk said. “I remember one day I hit a lot of fly balls to Willie in the outfield, and I thought he'd get killed. I told him to stay at first base.”

        Undeterred, Stargell reached the major leagues in 1962 as an outfielder. His bat was so big that the Pirates were willing to endure his defense.

Swinging for the fences

               Stargell was baseball's most menacing hitter for most of the 1970s. He'd stand at home plate, whipping his bat around like a baton and conveying the coiled fury of a bull pawing the ground before a charge.

        He swung with such savagery that he once owned the longest home run at more than half of the ballparks in the National League. In the process, he struck out 1,936 times — more than anyone else except Reggie Jackson (another Zuk signee).

        “We always talked about hitting,” Zuk said. “And he said too many young kids now don't strike out enough; that they were swinging for contact instead of for power.”

        Stargell never feared failure in baseball. He was too busy having fun.

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

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.


       



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