Celebrating With Willie Stargell

In his book 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal remarks that he finally felt like an adult the day that his boyhood hero Micky Mantle died. Six years ago, I had a similar experience: as the Pittsburgh Pirates prepared to open the new PNC Park for their home opener, Hall of Famer and personal boyhood hero Willie Stargell died, far too young and far too full of potential for good. The event prompted me to go for a physical, and I found that I was inhabiting a body that checked out ten years older than I was. It was the event that spurred me to take the hockey gear out of the basement, throw away the stuff that was too small, moldy, or fabricated from hazardous materials, and lace up to play ice hockey again. It re-ignited my love affair with the number 8, Willie Stargell’s number, the twin circles that made snowmen on the back of every jersey for which I had been able to pick the number.

Five months later, my 9-11 birthday went from a date I shared with Julius Caesar to one I shared in observance with most of America.

33 years ago, my parents took me to the other ballpark in Pennsylvania (Veterans Stadium) to watch the Pirates play, so that I could get a glimpse of Willie Stargell. The Pirates were in between World Series runs, and while we had a great time, it wasn’t until I was in my senior year of high school that I saw the healing power of sports. Willie Stargell led his racially and emotionally diverse Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Series title in 1979, with the old Three Rivers Stadium bouncing to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” a song that came to represent the team unity that started with captain Stargell.

This year, I got to celebrate my birthday with some of our government and education systems engineers as well as a few customers at the new PNC Park. We walked in by the statue of Willie Stargell, as large as he must have seemed in real life, and then found our seats just past the food court that features “Chicken on the Hill” (a reference to the restaurant Stargell ran in the off-season) and “Fam-i-lee BBQ”, a less oblique nod to the 1979 World Champions. My dinner won’t help this year’s annual physical report, but I savored, literally, every moment to celebrate in the shadow of a hero.

With my birthday nestled on the calendar between the unofficial end of the Jersey summer on Labor Day, and the official start of spiritual accounting marked by the Jewish New Year, I prefer to see 9-11 as a day on which to take stock of opportunity. What can I do more of, do better, or do differently? What’s the scope of “We are Family” in 2007?

Something to think about delayed for four hours in the Pittsburgh airport.