Steve Blass relates to Hong-Chih Kuo
Former Pirates pitcher understands the Dodgers' lefty with the case of the "yips"
PITTSBURGH -- After sitting through two innings of baseball and two hours of rain delay Thursday night, during which the left-field video board showed an ABC "Monday Night Baseball" broadcast of a no-hitter John Candelaria pitched against the Los Angeles Dodgers at old Three Rivers Stadium almost 35 years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with another 1970s-era Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, a guy who is now in his 29th season as a member of the team's broadcast crew.
The hook, of course, was that Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo had been put on the 15-day disabled list Wednesday with what officially was termed "anxiety disorder," but in reality was his second career bout with some form of what has long been unofficially referred to as Steve Blass Disease, a sudden inability to throw the ball anywhere near the intended target.
So who better to discuss it with than that aforementioned pitcher-turned-broadcaster, whose name happens to be Steve Blass.
"People sometimes tell me, 'You're one of two players who had a disease named after you,' me and Lou Gehrig,'' Blass said. "That's cruel, and it's such [baloney]. But I understand it. It's crazy to think that could happen the very next year after winning 19 games and finishing second for the Cy Young Award [in 1972]."
It was at least the second interview Blass had given since Kuo's abrupt departure, an obvious consequence of it just happening to come while the Dodgers were playing the team Blass pitched for and still works for. But he says writers routinely seek him out anyway whenever a pitcher -- or, in some cases, a position player -- is dealing with something such as this.
"I have an 800 number," said Blass, who lost his control in 1973 but never lost his sense of humor. "I tell people if Mackey Sasser had been my catcher, we would have had to keep a bucket of balls with us on the field."
Sasser was the first catcher to deal with the so-called "yips" while with the New York Mets in the late 1980s, developing a sudden inability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. He recovered and wound up playing nine years in the majors. Blass wasn't so lucky. He never did recover, although the affliction that would come to bear his name didn't initially strike him until he already had eight-plus seasons in the majors and 100 victories.
Blass wound up going 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA for the Pirates in '73, then pitched in one game in '74, walking seven batters in five innings.
Then, he walked away.
"I never fully understood what happened," he said. "But I was lucky in that it was toward the back of a career in which I already had done far more than I ever dreamed of. I tell people if that happened to me today, I would just go to Harvard Medical School and say, 'Fix me.' But that was a different era."
Kuo's current problems aren't as severe as Blass' were, and in fact aren't even as severe as Kuo's were the first time around in 2009, when he was throwing warmup pitches completely out of the Dodgers' bullpen. This time, they are imperceptible from the stands or the press box, the only hint to outsiders being on the stat sheet, where he uncharacteristically has walked six batters in 4 2/3 innings this season.
"What you don't want to see is it happening in front of everybody in an arena where you're going to be embarrassed," said Blass, who knows all about that. "There were a lot of nights when I was in the backyard at 4 a.m. I think the low point for me was one night on the road, when Bill Virdon was managing. He had taken me out of the rotation, which was the right thing to do. But he brought me out of the bullpen one night in Atlanta, and it was just awful."
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Blass pitched 1 1/3 innings that night, and the miracle was that he got those four batters out. Of the other 11 he faced, he walked six of them, and five of them got hits.
"We were flying to Cincinnati after the game," Blass said. "When we got there, I just walked around Cincinnati all night until morning."
Blass has been generous with his time with players who have gone through this over the years, pitchers such as Rick Ankiel and Mark Wohlers, but he says he usually lets them come to him when they are ready. There hasn't been a conversation with Kuo, but Blass said if he could give him one piece of advice, it would be to exhaust every possible solution before giving up.
"My advice for whoever is involved is to try everything," he said. "It might just be some little thing that clicks. I know he has had several surgeries, so if you're worried about your arm, that could be another problem altogether. I never had a sore arm in my life, and I think I could still throw. ... [But] I tried everything. I didn't want to be 80 years old and wonder, 'What if I had tried this or tried that, would it have been a different story?'
"By the time I walked away, I was actually relieved."
For now, relief remains out of reach for Kuo. But he also is a long, long way from having explored every possible avenue as Blass did, and there still is hope that he eventually will regain whatever it is that he has lost and whatever it was that made him an All-Star setup man just last summer. If nothing else, Kuo can take at least some measure of comfort in the knowledge that there is a good-humored, 69-year-old man in a broadcast booth some 2,500 miles away who knows exactly what he is going through and will be rooting for him as hard as anybody.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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