On the eve of his departure from a game he still can't believe people pay him to play, Willie Stargell says he has no specific plans.

He will continue working to raise funds for sickle cell anemia research, a mission that has all but consumed him in the offseason. But after this season, never again will the man they call "Pops" play baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates. After 20 years, he is retiring.

What will his loss mean?

"He is the Pirates," said third baseman Bill Madlock, chosen to succeed Stargell as team captain. "As far as me taking over, you don't take over for Pops. You just let his waves keep rolling."

Will there be the Pirates after Stargell is gone?

"There will always be the Pirates," vowed Kent Tekulve, the stringbean relief pitcher, "and Willie will always be part of them."

Fans remember Stargell best for the 1979 season, when, at 38, he hit 32 homers and led Pittsburgh to the division title, then was most valuable player in the league championship series (.455 batting average, two homers) and the World Series (.400 average, three homers).

In the seventh game of that series with the Orioles, Stargell came to the plate swinging his bat like a war club. He had four hits, including a two-run homer that gave Pittsburgh a lead it would not relinquish and the world championship for only the third time since 1925.

Although his bat brought him fame, something else turned him into the leader of the team called "The Family."

"It's simple. Willie treats everybody like they're important," said Richie Hebner.

So it came as no surprise that when Stargell came to work on Willie Stargell day last week, he had under his arm a gift -- a plastic jug full of Italian wedding soup for one of the clubhouse men.

And when he took the microphone in front of more than 39,000 people in Three Rivers Stadium, the folks he chose to thank first were the ushers, the grounds crew, the clubhouse men, the fans and his family. He was surrounded by Pittsburgh business magnates, team owners and officials, and he'd just received telephone congratulations from the president of the United States, but his thoughts were with the people.

He looked up to the cheap seats and said, "If there's anybody from the projects sitting up there, here's living proof that with hard work, determination and dedication you can make an indentation on the world."

Perhaps the emotion of the day helped along a comparison proposed by Madlock.

"Remember when Martin Luther King spoke, everybody would turn around? It's the same with Will. And it's so important to have people like that because there are plenty of people out there trying to get you to follow them in a negative way. With Will and King, it's a positive thing."

The comparison isn't all that wild.

Example: when Stargell delivered an "inspirational talk" to young players at Pirate spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla., last February, he recounted a tale from his minor league days in the South.

When Stargell came to the park one day, he told the recruits, there was a man at the gate. The man opened his raincoat to display a shotgun.

"He said, 'Nigger, if you play today I'm going to blow your head off,' " Stargell recounted.

Stargell thought about it and decided no one was going to scare him out of making his living. He played in sweaty fear. Nothing happened until late in the game.

"The ballpark was next to a highway. I don't know whether it was a truck or what, but I heard a tremendous 'Blam!' I thought I was dead. I wet my pants."

It was a backfire. Stargell, soaked and scared, never looked back. Nor has he since.

But he's grown with the times. "Believe it or not, when he came up in 1962, he was about 5 feet 11 and a speedster," said veteran scout Howie Higgs. "He grew about three inches that year and a couple more after that."

Twenty years, 50 or 60 pounds and 475 home runs later, Stargell is baseball's philosophizing grand old man. "When a rookie drops a ball, Willie is the first guy over to his locker to tell him, 'We'll get 'em tomorrow,' " said Hebner. "It's going to be strange without No. 8 around."

Added Manager Chuck Tanner: "If our rookie pitcher, Rod Scurry, has a good day, Willie will yell out afterwards, 'Nice game, everybody but Scurry.' The kid hears his name. He feels great. He's part of the team."

Team officials asked Stargell to come back and pinch-hit one more year, but since 1979 the seasons have not been easy, playing on a banged-up left knee he describes as "worse than worst."

His thoughts on leaving the game? "I'm all wrapped up in joy," said Stargell.