Los Angeles — "When I was a kid I used to fantasize all the time about owning a Rolls-Royce ," said first baseman Willie Stargell, the Pittsburgh Pirates' elder statesman after 20 years in the National League. "I used to look at pictures of the wide radiator and high front fenders and think, 'Wow, if I could just get my hands on something like that!'
"But it wasn't until 1973 that I got serious and really began looking around, " he continued. "I didn't go to any showrooms in the United States because I never considered a new car. What I wanted was one that somebody in England had already owned; that maybe had a history; and that had the steering wheel on the right side."
Stargell searched for three years with foreign car brokers before he found what he wanted, a 1963 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud that belonged to an English carrot farmer who had just installed a new engine and had the leather upholstery replaced.
"My total cost for the car and shipping it to the United States came to $18, 400," Willie said. "At first I justified the purchase in my own mind as an investment -- that I'd keep the car a while, then turn it over for a profit. Last year I got a serious offer of more than $40,000. But the fact is that kind of car grows on you. Besides, I've got two boys of driving age now who would never let me sell it.
"One reason I look forward to spring training every year is that my family and I always drive to Florida in the Rolls," he said. "Out on the highway, this car seems to hug the road. Of course you have to settle for 10 miles to the gallon when you're just driving at normal speeds. I've also spent some heavy money on body work because of all the salt and chemicals they put on the roads in Pittsburgh during the winter."
Stargell has three other vehicles -- a turbo-drive Mercedes, a new BMW, and a four-wheel-drive Chevrolet Blazer.
"This is probably going to sound strange after all I've said about the Rolls, but the care I really enjoy driving most is the Blazer," Willie explained. "What you have to understand is that I've always been a country boy who likes anything that's rugged. I love battling the ice and snow during a storm, especially when you've got four-wheel drive going for you."
Asked how a man who has spent two decades playing baseball can still retain the enthusiasm of a rookie, Stargell replied:
"Unfortunately the only thing the fan ever sees is the game -- what happens out on the field. But in baseball you are really part of a family that also lives together in the locker room. The friendship that develops between athletes over a long period of time is not something that you can put into words. But you can't stay in the game very long without it.
"After two years in the big leagues, you begin to realize that everything is mental anyway.I'm not saying you don't have to be talented to play this game, but that it's how you handle the daily mental pressures that really count -- how you discipline yourself.
"You let the fear of failure into your consciousness and you are really in trouble. I see this happening all the time to young players and I tell them: 'Hey, only you can let that negative stuff into your mind, and if you do you are making a big mistake.'"
Stargell says that before he quits he probably will have batted 10,000 times and made 7,000 outs, and that the pitcher who always gave him the most trouble was the Dodgers' Sandy Koufax.
"But the thing I plan to remember is how I got 3,000 hits, and how only a handful of players have ever done that," Willie said, though such a feat is still at least a few more years away for the veteran slugger who still needed around 800 starting this season.
"I'm also shooting for 500 home runs," Stargell said, "and when you're only 27 away you get a little excited."
How loose is the Pirates' clubhouse, which is frequently described as a zoo?
"I don't mind telling you that we're a pretty wild group when we get by ourselves," Stargell admitted during his team's recent visit here for a series with the Dodgers. "We ride each other a lot and when we want to remind a guy of something we nail his shoes to the floor.
"But sometimes we're just playful," he continued. "Like right now I got it all fixed with room service at the hotel to deliver a $100 breakfast to Bill Madlock tomorrow at 7 a.m. Man, he's going to see two dozen eggs and that just might lead to a few phone calls and a party.
"Bill will probably figure I'm the guy who set him up and he'll act like he's mad, only he can't really be sure who did it. But he also knows he's going to have to pay the hundred, because when somebody on this club does something like that he never admits it.
"Actually this is the perfect time to pull a stunt like that on Madlock, because he's leading the National League in hitting. If he were going badly, we'd never bother him."