Players, officials, fans react to Stargell’s death
When catcher Jason Kendall reported to his first spring camp with the Pirates, his father advised him to spend as much time as he could with Willie Stargell.
Fred Kendall spent 12 seasons in the majors and became an admirer of Stargell’s grit, easygoing manner and incredible skills. He wanted his son to play the game the same way.
‘Dad said Willie was one of the most wonderful guys in the world,’ Jason Kendall said. ‘My dad didn’t lie.’
Stargell, 61, died just after midnight Monday after a long bout with a kidney ailment. The Hall of Famer left an immense legacy: 475 career home runs, seven All-Star selections and two World Series titles with the Pirates.
‘Willie Stargell meant a lot to me,’ Kendall said in a soft, sorrowful voice. ‘We became pretty good friends the last four or five years. He taught me a lot about the game.’
Pirates first-year manager Lloyd McClendon was in the minors when Stargell retired in 1982. However, McClendon was with the Pirates a decade later when Stargell rejoined the franchise as an instructor and administrative assistant.
‘So much of Willie is inside of me,’ McClendon said. ‘There is so much passion and love for the game that he instilled in me.’
Stargell’s death took some of the luster off the first official game at PNC Park. Coaches, players and fans were stunned when they heard the news on early-morning news reports; many of them found out while driving to the game.
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‘It would have been nice to have him here today to welcome in the new generation,’ outfielder Brian Giles said.
‘He was so special to everyone in the city of Pittsburgh,’ outfielder John Vander Wal said. ‘I’m sure for a lot of people, it was a bittersweet day.’
The skies were sunny and the stands were full, but the Pirates lost their home opener, 8-2, to the Cincinnati Reds. Stargell was honored before the game with a moment of silence and a video display on the scoreboard.
‘It was a very emotional day,’ McClendon said. ‘Probably the toughest day I’ve had in this game in quite a while.’
‘During the video, I got a big lump in my throat,’ Kendall said. ‘I know ‘Pops’ would have wanted us to go out and play the game hard.’
The Pirates drew the No. 8, Stargell’s retired uniform number, on their game caps – a small, gold digit next to the P on the front of the cap. In the next couple of days, patches will be placed somewhere on the jerseys as a season-long tribute.
As he threw out the ceremonial first pitch yesterday, Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy wore a jersey with No. 8 on the back.
‘The entire organization, along with the baseball world, is saddened by this news,’ McClatchy said in a prepared statement. ‘We find it ironic that on one of the greatest days for the Pirates franchise, the opening of PNC Park, it’s also one of the saddest.
‘We still believe his presence will be felt at the ballpark today.’
Even though Stargell never set foot in PNC Park, there were reminders of him everywhere. His face was on T-shirts, his name written on jerseys and banners, his great plays flashed on the Jumbotron.
The largest memorial sits outside the left-field entrance to the park – a 12-foot high statue, which was dedicated Saturday in a ceremony that Stargell was too ill to attend.
The statue is achingly lifelike. Stargell’s eyes burn with intensity, and his larger-than-life arms grip the bat. His right foot is lifted slightly as he prepares to uncoil and strike the ball. His pinky finger is curled just under the bat’s nub in a style favored by another super slugger, Babe Ruth.
‘It’s amazing, the detail,’ former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner said.
‘The shame of it is he never got to see that statue,’ Pirates pitcher Terry Mulholland said. ‘Like too many (other) times, we erect statues and hang uniform numbers too late.’
Pirates fans came to PNC Park bearing their own items, and turned the bronze statue of Stargell into a shrine. They clustered around its base, leaving offerings of flowers, posters, poems and other personal keepsakes.
A placard sitting at the base of Stargell’s left foot said, ‘We kiss you goodbye,’ a reference to the way the late Bob Prince called Stargell’s many homers.
Pirates spokesman Jim Trdinich said items at the statue would be collected, but the team had not decided whether or not to store and/or display them.
Most fans, though, don’t crave another momument to Stargell. For them, the memories are enough.
‘Growing up, he was my hero,’ George Hempel, a fan from North Huntingdon, said in between bites of fries from Pops Potato Patch. He paused and gazed around the crowded PNC Park concourse, listening to the pregame buzz of an excited sellout crowd.
‘I like to think that Willie’s moved on to a better place now and he’s overseeing all of this.’