Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Skipper That Stirs The Drink...

While the Pirate nation waits with bated breath to find out if Rocco or Derrick join the team or if Dirt Dog makes a miraculous resurrection in Bucco colors, GW's mind got to wandering: who was the best at being maestro to a Pittsburgh ensemble when the talent was finally assembled?

Yah, we know that it's the players that make a team, but still, somebody has to fill out the lineup card. Here's our list of the top five skippers to ever run the Pirate orchestra since the days of Al Pratt, the first Allegheny manager from back in 1882:

5) Bill McKechnie (1922-1926, 409-293, .583) - McKechnie, a Wilkinsburg native who started and ended his MLB playing career with the Pirates, won 55% or more of his games in four of his five seasons at the helm, and his 1925 Bucs won it all.

They beat Washington and the Big Train, Walter Johnson, in seven games. With Kiki Cuyler, Max Carey, and Pie Traynor, he had an explosive club. Alas, his Pirate career came to a screeching halt during the ABC uprising (see Fred Clarke) and he moved on to St. Louis, the third of his five managerial stops.

McKechnie is the only skipper to win pennants with three different NL clubs - Pittsburgh (1925), St. Louis (1928), and Cincinnati (1939-40). He led his 1925 and 1940 clubs to World Championships and was twice named manager of the year.

He was an odd kinda manager for his era (this era, too!) A religious man, he didn't smoke, didn't drink, and didn't cuss. When he had a problem child who liked to party, McKechnie's Solomonic solution was to room with him. That usually calmed the situation. Not too surprisingly, his nickname was the Deacon.

McKechnie was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He died at age 79 in Bradenton, Florida, where the Pirates' spring training home, McKechnie Field, is named after him.

4) Jim Leyland (1986-1996, 851-863, .496) - Before the Pirate suits gutted his lineup, the chain smoking skipper led the Bucs to three straight division titles (1990-92). But for all the players he had in the early 1990s, he couldn't get past the NLCS and suffered some of the most heart-breaking losses in Pittsburgh sports history.

In 1990, his club was outpitched by the Reds. In 1991, they lost the NLCS to Atlanta, losing a pair of 1-0 games and the series in seven after being up 3 games to 2, and 1992 - well, we'll just forget about that one.

Leyland hung around for a while, but the suits let all the stars - Barry Bonds, Bobby Bo, Doug Drabek, Andy Van Slyke - leave, and Jim eventually followed them.

In 1997, he was hired by Wayne Huizenga to manage the Florida Marlins and led them to the franchise's first world championship. In the offseason, Huizenga dismantled the team. Leyland lasted another season, and moved on to the Colorado Rockies head job in 1999.

It was one and out with the Rox, and he became a Pittsburgh-based scout for the Cardinals. You could spy him in the stands of PNC Park with Chuck Tanner. And what a commentary that was to the Pittsburgh fans.

In 2005, Leyland returned to the franchise where he spent the first 18 years of his pro baseball career, Detroit. In 2006, he guided the Tigers to a 95-67 record, their best season since 1987. They won the AL crown as a wild card, only to be dropped by St. Louis in the Series.

Leyland was recognized with the Manager of the Year award for the third time in his career, becoming the third person to win the award in both leagues. He also won The Sporting News Manager of the Year Award for the American League in 2006.

Times have been a little rougher in Motown for Jim of late, and he's working on the last year of his contract. He and his wife Katie live in Pittsburgh with their two kids.

3) Chuck Tanner (1977-1985, 711-685, .509) - Sunshine superman was the ideal guru for the "We Are Familee" Pirates of the late 70s and early 80s. In his 11 seasons, he only made the playoffs once - but whatta ride that was, as the 1979 Pirates rallied to take the Series' crown away from Baltimore.

You know the Pirates wanted him badly. They traded an over-the-hill Manny Sanguillen and threw in $100,000 to pry him loose from Charlie Finley and the Oakland A's, then only the second time a manager had been traded.

He took them to the promised land, but Pops and Dave Parker were on a downslide, and Bert Blyleven was traded. The results showed, as did Tanner's laissez faire attitude towards his players' personal lives, culminating in the low mark of Pittsburgh baseball, the drug trials of 1985.

His baby-sitting skills can be questioned, but he came up with an innovation that's still en vogue. Tanner came up with the "bridge" relievers, bringing in guys as early as the sixth inning to keep the lead, a new tactic at the time. In fact, in 1979 Grant Jackson pitched in 72 games, Enrique Romo in 84 and Kent Tekulve in a league-leading 94. They had the three highest appearance totals in the NL.

Pittsburgh and Tanner parted ways after the 1985 season, and he went to the Braves to manage three unforgettable years with an old, creaking roster.

In 2006, he was invited to be a coach in the All Star game in a classy move by NL manager Phil Garner, who played for the Pirates during Tanner's time, and Chuck threw out the first pitch. It was a great moment for both Tanner and the Pirate faithful.

He returned to the Pirates in 2008 as a senior advisor, and his rumpled golf hat is as much a part of PNC Park as the Pierogies. And Tanner has two more modest claims to fame - the Yankee Doodle was born in New Castle, where he still lives, on the Fourth of July, and hit a home run in his first MLB at bat.

2) Fred Clarke (1900-1915, 1422-969, .595) - Clarke won four NL titles and the 1909 World Series with a roster of great players brought to Pittsburgh by Barney Dreyfuss at the turn of the century. And he was one of them.

In 1900, Clarke joined the Pittsburgh Pirates as a player and manager, roles he would hold until his retirement in 1915. His team played in the first World Series ever held, losing 5 games to 3 in 1903 to the AL Boston Americans and Cy Young after their third consecutive NL title.

But he got his revenge in 1909, when his club whipped the Ty Cobb-led Detroit Tigers. Of course, having Honus Wagner and Babe Adams didn't hurt the cause, either.

He was also a cause celebrite when he instigated the ABC affair. As an assistant to Barney Dreyfuss in 1926, he was allowed to sit on the Pirates' bench but the players, egged on by a trio of vets, wanted him out of the dugout. The Pirates responded by releasing Babe Adams, Carson Bigbee and Max Carey. Still, he had enough and retired after the season.

Clarke was selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945 as one of the first to be elected by the Old-Timers Committee with over 1,400 wins as a manager and a lifetime .312 batting average. After his baseball days, Clarke retired to his "Little Pirate Ranch" near Winfield, Kansas, where he died at age 87

1) Danny Murtaugh (1957-1964, 1967, 1970-1971, 1973-1976, 1115-950, .540) - The Smilin' Irishman was as synonymous with Pirate baseball as Rosey Rosewell and the Gunner. He took the helm four times, and twice won World Series as a heavy underdog, with a NL pennant and 4 NL East titles to his credit.

He was named the Pirates manager in the middle of the 1957 season, replacing the acerbic Bobby Bragan. The next year, he led Pittsburgh to a second place finish.

Two years later he piloted the Pirates to their first NL flag since 1927, and led them to a 4 games to 3 victory over the heavily favored New York Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, aided a bit by Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic 9th inning home run in Game 7. It was Pittsburgh's first title since 1944.

After managing the Bucs for the next four seasons, he stepped down in 1964 after a heart attack, but stayed with the club as an advisor.

In 1967 he replaced Harry "The Hat" Walker as the Pirates field leader in mid-season as a favor, but stepped down at season's end. In 1970, after spending two years in the front office, he accepted the managers job for a third time, having helped build the team from within and recognizing that it was, well, loaded. He managed the team to another first place finish, but lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS.

With a lineup that boasted of Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Dock Ellis and Al Oliver, he captured the 1971 NL Pennant and then defeated the Baltimore Orioles 4 games to 3 in the World Series. After winning the crown he retired one more time, again on top of the baseball world.

But you can't keep a good man down. For a fourth time, he would come back to the Pirates at the tail end of the 1973 season to take the spot of his hand-picked replacement, Bill Virdon. He led the team to two more NL East titles in 1974 and 1975, but lost in the NLCS both years.

After the 1976 season he called it quits for the final time, suffering a stroke and dying only two months later in his Chester home. He was named the NL Manager of the Year in 1958, won the Sporting News' Manager of the Year honors twice (1960 and 1970), and in 1960, he was selected as the "Man of the Year" by Sport magazine.

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