Thursday, January 31, 2008

mad dog, scrap iron & crazy horse

Pirate from Walt Disney.

We are fam-a-lee...who can forget that 1979 team, as brash a bunch to ever represent the Pirates, talkin' trash while their ladies danced on the dugout roof and eventually raising the Jolly Roger over the stunned Orioles?

Everyone remembers Pops. Wilver Dornel Stargell outdid himself as the maestro of those swaggering 1979 Bucs. The Hall of Fame first sacker was named the ML Player of the Year, NL MVP, and World Series MVP. But he had to share the infield with a crazy quilt collection of baseball misfits - Mad Dog, Scrap Iron, and Crazy Horse.

Scrap Iron Phil Garner was the old man of the trio in team seniority, following Chuck Tanner to Pittsburgh from Oakland in 1977. The Pirates sent half their team (Dave Guisti, Doc Medich, Doug Bair, Rick Langford, Tony Armas and Mitchell Paige) to the coast to get him and a couple of guys named Joe. He hit .293 for the Bucs in 1979, over 30 points higher than his career average, and moved over from the hot corner to play second base when Mad Dog arrived. Garner combined with Crazy Horse for 97 DPs and the pair generated an intensity level seldom seen in the middle of an infield. Garner's karmic twin, Yosemite Sam, would be proud of his doppelganger.

Crazy Horse Tim Foli came to Pittsburgh with Greg Field from the Mets for Frank Taveras on April 9, 1979 with the rep as a steady glove and a hot head. He was slow, seldom took a walk, had no power, wore owl-like specs and hardly ever struck out. In spite of that, he was the first player selected in the 1968 player draft. Tanner immediately plugged him into the two hole behind Omar Moreno, and though he only hit .264, his ability to put the ball in play was enough juice to start the Antelope blazing his way around the bases.

Mad Dog Bill Madlock was the final piece of the infield puzzle. He came over in late June 1979 with Dave Roberts and Lenny Randle from the Giants for Ed Whitson, Fred Breining and Al Holland in one of Brown's better deals. Madlock was the player that took Ron Santo's spot in Chicago as a rookie, but he had problems meshing with the G-Men. They had switched him from his familiar position of third base to second, and he was not a happy camper over the move. But his bat wasn't complaining - he would be a 4-time NL batting champion (twice with Pittsburgh) before his career ended, and he hit at a .323 clip for the Pirates in 1979. His arrival allowed Tanner to move Garner off third and to second, solidifying the infield.

Joe Brown wasn't a GM afraid to take a chance, and these moves paid off in spades in 1979. Other teams may not have been able to take a chance on three guys that had reputations as difficult players, but with Chuck Tanner at the helm and Pops and the Cobra in the locker room, Brown knew he wouldn't have any cancerous clubhouse meltdowns. And as much as their gloves and bats helped carry the Pirates to the 1979 NL East title after a heart thumping pennant race with the Expos (the Pirates won by a slim two game margin), they would really shine in the post season.

The Bucs swept the Reds in the NLCS, but it wasn't easy. The first pair of games went extra innings. Garner homered in the first game while Foli's 11th inning single led to the go ahead run. Foli was the man in the second game. He scored the first run, drove in the second with a double, and his sacrifice bunt in the 10th set up the game winning third run. They all contributed in the 7-1 NLCS clincher.

In the series, the Pirates split the first pair of games. Madlock drove in the first run in the Buc's victory and Foli started a tremendous DP to bail the Bucs out of a jam. But Pittsburgh lost the next two at TRS and when things looked darkest (not only were the Bucs down 3 games to 1, but Tanner's mom died that morning), our intrepid trio took over. Pittsburgh won 7-1 as Madlock, Foli and Garner went 8-12, scoring twice and driving in 5 runs as an ensemble. The Bucs needed a sweep in Baltmore, and Foli and Garner each scored a run in the 4-0 sixth game win, giving the Candy Man all the support he needed. Game 7 was the Pops show. He went 4-5 with 2-2Bs and a homer, and they rode on his broad shoulders to the Promised Land.

As a group, Mad Dog, Scrap Iron, and Crazy Horse went 31-78 (.397) during the fall classic. They drove in 11 runs, scored 12, and drew 10 walks, striking out only twice. Not too shabby a job for a cast of misfits.

Like so many others, their stop in Pittsburgh didn't last very long. Foli went to California in 1981 for Brian Harper and Garner was dealt to the Astros the same year for Johnny Ray and a couple of minor leaguers. Madlock was a mainstay until 1985 when he went back to the coast, this time to LA, for RJ Reynolds, Cecil Espy, and Sid Bream. But in Pittsburgh they'll always be fam-a-lee.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

the freak show

kevin polcovich
Kevin Polcovich from Baseball Almanac

1996 saw a lot of goodbyes for the Bucs. They started when Jim Leyland left for the Marlins, and Cam Bonifay made sure a boatload of his players joined him in the bon voyage from Pittsburgh.

Denny Neagle, Dave Clark, Charlie Hayes, Carlos Garcia, Orlando Merced, Dan Plesac, Jay Bell and Jeff King were all dealt. Bonifay explained the first McClatchy plan (of many), which was to strip the club to the bone and invest in the minors and Latin America so they could hit the field running when PNC opened in 2001. Well, they got the "slash costs" part down to a science - they trimmed the $21M Buc payroll of 1996 down to $9M in 1997. The part about them making moves for the future? Well, that didn't work out quite so well. The only starting player Pittsburgh got was the Joker, Joe Randa, and a couple of bench warmers, Abraham Nunez and pitcher Jose Silva. Craig Wilson joined the organization too, as a minor league catcher.

But as Greg Brown said, the 1997 Bucs were a freak show. How else can you explain a lineup of Randa, Jason Kendall, Kevin Young, Tony Womack, Kevin Polcovich, Al Martin, Jermaine Allensworth and Jose Guillen hanging around the top of the Comedy Central division until the last week of September? These guys actually were tied for first in mid July, and spent 32 days of the season in the top spot.

Mainly it was because they overachieved, just the kind of players that Neal Huntington is looking for today. Womack stole 60 bases, Randa and Young were .300 hitters, Martin and Kendall hit in the .290's and the rest all chipped in with respectable offensive numbers. The bench of Dale Sveum, Mark Smith, and Turner Ward had more than its' share of moments during the year too.

The starters were solid, and in fact the trio of Jason Schmidt, Jon Lieber, and Esteban Loaiza would become quite competent pitchers, although not in Pittsburgh. Francisco Cordova had his best year and Steve Cooke rounded out the staff. Cordova was the only one with a sub-4 ERA and each won between 9 & 11 games. Rich Loiselle was our closer, with a 3.10 ERA and 29 saves. He was joined by a cast of thousands in the bullpen, notably Marc Wilkins, Clint Sadowsky, Ricardo Rincon, Matt Reubel, Chris Peters, Jason Christiansen and Dave Wainwright.

Gene Lamont, who took over the reins from Leyland, did a Hall of Fame job guiding his group through the season. The Bucs got just 39 games out of their one big pick up, free agent shortstop Kevin Elster, who managed to break his arm after hitting 7 homers in 139 at bats. He and Martin, both $2M men, were the only Pirates that made over $400K. Kevin Polcovich rode to the rescue – no, seriously. The baby faced dude played short like he belonged, fielding the ball well and hitting .273. He wouldn’t be the only feel good story of this unlikely season.

The team got it's name in late May against the Expos. In a wild game punctuated by some oddball plays, Kevin Young came up in the ninth with the bases loaded against Lee Smith. Announcer Bob Walk mentioned it'd be freaky if he hit one out, and of course he did, winning the game for the Bucs 8-6. Greg Brown cried "It's a freak show," which would become his tagline for the season. The Pirates even changed their ad campaign from "Let's Go To Work" to "The Freak Show." It caught on in a town hungry for a ball team to believe in.

Besides playing some decent baseball - their 79 wins would be the highwater mark of the McClatchy era - the Pirates gave us some memorable moments. It started May 2 when Turner Ward ran through the right field wall at TRS flagging down Mike Piazza's drive even though his team was down 9-0 to the Dodgers. The play was aired season-long as the highlight of the year on TV.

On July 12, Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon combined on a 10 inning no hitter against the Astros, won by a dramatic two-out, three run shot by pinch hitter Mark Smith. It's still the only combined extra inning no hitter ever tossed. The win put the Pirates into a first place tie with the Astros. And it happened in front of a sellout crowd of 44,119 who came out to honor Jackie Robinson's 50th anniversary before the game and catch some Zambelli fireworks afterwards.

On July 17, they were still tied for first place. Four days later, the Bucs beat Curt Schilling and the Phillies. Polcovich missed a suicide squeeze sign and Keith Osik, breaking from third on the pitch, was easily tagged out at home. Wondering if the missed sign would get him a seat on the next bus to the minors, Polcovich banged the next pitch into the seats for the game winner. Schilling chirped at him as he rounded the bases, unable to believe what just happened.

And Pittsburgh became a stretch run buyer for the only time since 1992 when they picked up Shawon Dunston on August 31. He hit .394 for the Pirates during September, but his Superman act wasn't enough to pull the little train that couldn't up the hill.

They ended the season five games behind the Astros by the time the smoke cleared, last hitting the .500 mark on August 30. (Houston got knocked out in the first playoff round by the Buc's old nemesis, the Atlanta Braves.) Allensworth, Womack and Randa left in the offseason. Polcovich had one more year in the bigs before he was out of baseball. Guillen was traded in 1999 for Humberto Cota and Joe Oliver after Kendall splintered his ankle hustling to first base. The core players - Young, Martin and Kendall - slowly faded away.

The pitching staff was broken up, too. Cooke went to the Reds as a free agent in 1998. Loaiza was traded to Texas after the 1998 season for Warren Morris and Todd Van Poppel. Jon Lieber was sent to the Cubs for Brant Brown in 1999, and 2000 was Cordova's last season in baseball. Loiselle had 19 saves in 1998 and his career ended after the 2001 season. Schmidt lasted until the middle of 2001 when he and John Vander Wal went to the Giants for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong.

Gene Lamont managed through 2000 with the Pirate's blue light special rosters when he was replaced (perhaps mercifully) by Lloyd McClendon. Two last bits of trivia - the current Pirate logo was unveiled in 1997 (the Pirate with the red bandana), and one of the Buc's 2008 free agents, Elmer Dessens, was on the Freak Show roster. A good omen, no?

I say long live the Freak Show. They were the last Pirate team to show a pulse in Pittsburgh.

piarte logo 1997
1997 Pirate logo from Pirate's website

Monday, January 28, 2008

downtown dale long

dale long
Dale Long from Wikipedia

A native of Springfield, Missouri, the 6-4, 210 pound teenager Dale Long turned down a try out from the Green Bay Packers just as WW2 was ending in 1945. He wanted to try his hand at baseball instead. At first, it looked like he may have made the wrong decision.

Long spent six seasons in the minor leagues playing for five different organizations before he finally got his shot with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1951. He played sparingly, hit less (his average was .167), and was waived. The St. Louis Browns picked him up in mid season and let him go at the end of the year.

He spent 3-1/2 more years toiling in the minors (he ended up playing for 15 minor league clubs) before the Bucs gave the 29 year old Long another chance in 1955. He took advantage of the opportunity, batting .291 with 79 RBI, 19 doubles, 13 triples and 16 home runs.

In 1956, Long posted career-highs with 27 home runs and 91 RBI. He added 7 more triples to his resume, a tribute to the vast expanse of Forbes Field's outfield more than the big galoot's speed around the basepaths. He much preferred a home run trot. Long earned a spot on the NL All-Star team that year.

But he made his claim to baseball fame that season by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games. Since then, the mark has been matched only by Don Mattingly in 1987 and Ken Griffey, Jr. in 1993. Not bad company to be in, hey? And the Pirates needed a bright spot - they would end the year in seventh place, 27 games behind the NL champion Brooklyn Dodgers.

The streak started at home on May 19 when he homered off the Cub's Jim Davis. In the next half dozen games, Long took Ray Crone, Warren Spahn, Herman Wehmeier, Lindy McDaniel, Curt Simmons and Ben Flowers deep.

He came home to a frenzied sell out crowd of 32,000 at Forbes Field howling for another blast. It wouldn't be easy. The Brooklyn Dodgers were in town and throwing Carl Erksine at the Bucs. He had no-hit the Giants just two weeks earlier.

His first at bat resulted in a weak infield roller. But his next appearance put him in the history books. After painfully fouling a ball off of his ankle, he launched one over the right field screen.

Bob Skinner sat patiently on deck as the delighted Forbes Field faithful erupted. The din went on for ten minutes until his teammates finally pushed him out of the dugout to take a bow. It was said to be the first curtain call in baseball history.

But fame is indeed fleeting. He was traded to the Chicago Cubs in May 1957 with Lee Walls for Gene Baker and Dee Fondy. Long belted 55 homers for the Cubs in two and a half seasons in the cozy confines of Wrigley Field.

And he got his name into the record books yet again. In 1958 Long became the first left-handed throwing catcher since 1906. He was behind the dish for all of two games, wearing his first baseman's glove (there was no such thing as a lefty catcher's mitt), and was credited with one assist and one passed ball in his brief time sporting the tools of ignorance. Another Buc, Benny Distefano, was the last lefty to catch, back in 1989.

In 1959 he tied another record when he hit back-to-back pinch-hit homers.

In 1960 Long split the year between the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees. He got to face the Pirates again in the World Series, and went 1-3 as a pinch hitter against his former mates.

Long played for the Washington Senators from 1961-62 and ended the season as a member of the Yankee team that won the World Series over the Giants. Long went 1-5, spelling Moose Skowron at first base. He finished his playing days with New York in 1963.

After an 10 year MLB career, he retired to become a Yankee coach and later worked as a minor league umpire and executive. He hit .267 with 132 home runs and 467 RBI in 1,013 games and got a world series ring during his time in the majors.

Dale Long died of cancer in Palm Coast, Florida in 1991 at the age of 64.

"You can shake a dozen glove men out of a tree, but the bat separates the men from the boys." - Dale Long

Sunday, January 27, 2008

the last hurrah

sid bream 1992
Sid Bream Scores from Jefferson Perkins

Not much was expected from Jimmy Leyland's 1992 edition of the Pirates. They had won the NL East two years running, losing the NLCS to the Reds in 1990 and the Braves in 1991 after leading the best of seven series 3-2. But Bobby Bonilla left for free agency and big lefty John Smiley was traded for financial relief - an omen of things to come.

Led by all star performances by Barry Bonds (.311, 34-103, 127 walks) and Andy Van Slyke (.324, 14-89), the Bucs ended up winning 99 games in 1992. With the TRS speakers pumpin' out Van Halen's "Right Now", they clinched the pennant on September 27 as the Expo's faded down the stretch. The attack wasn't pretty, but it was effective, and the pitching was top notch. Still, taking this team to the pennant may have been Leyland's best coaching job in Pittsburgh.

Even with an anemic team batting average of .255 and a paltry 106 home runs, the Pirates led the league in scoring with 693 runs. Along with the dynamic duo of Bonds and Van Slyke, the other Bucs penciled in as every day starters were 2B Jose Lind (.235 0-39), shortstop Jay Bell (.264, 9-55) and usually Orlando Merced (.247, 6-60) at first base.

Third base was shared by Steve Buechele and Jeff King, who played all four infield spots. The catching was by platoon, shared by Spanky LaValliere and Don Slaught. The spare outfielder was the three headed combo of Cecil Espy, Gary Varsho and Gary Redus, who also filled in at first. The bench consisted of Alex Coles, Lloyd McClendon and John Wehner.

Ah, the pitching. Their 3.35 ERA was third in the league, behind Atlanta and Montreal by a hair. The regular rotation consisted of Doug Drabek, Bob Walk, Randy Tomlin and Zane Smith with Danny Jackson, Tim Wakefield and soon to be closer Jeff Robinson also getting some starts. The bullpen was headed up by Stan Belinda with 18 saves. Bob Patterson and Roger Mason saved 17 more, and even Denny Neagle, who worked as a reliever and spot starter that year, chipped in with a couple.

But the season was mere prologue to the NLCS rematch against the Braves, led by John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, Terry Pendleton, David Justice and Ron Gant. The Bucs were looking for revenge and a fast start, but instead got clocked by the Braves in Atlanta 5-1 and 13-5 as Glavine and Steve Avery easily outpitched Drabek and Jackson.

Returning to TRS for three games, the Bucs split the first two, with Wakefield outdueling Glavine for a 3-2 win, the winning rbi scoring on a sac fly by Van Slyke in the 7th. Drabek was rocked again, losing 6-4 to Smoltz. Staving off elimination, they stayed alive with a 7-1 romp behind Walk's complete game as the Pirate hitters solved Avery this time around. The bats stayed afire in Atlanta when they chased Glavine in a 13-4 runaway with Wakefield notching his second victory. The deciding game was set for October 14, 1992, a day that will live in infamy for Pirate fans.

Smoltz was going against Drabek, and at first everything was going the Buc's way. Pittsburgh took a 1-0 lead in the first when a Merced fly ball scored Coles, who had reached third on a Van Slyke double. The Pirates added another run in the sixth when Van Slyke singled home Bell, who had doubled to lead off the inning.

Then Pittsburgh misfired on a couple of chances that they needed, in hindsight, to seal the deal. The Bucs almost iced it in the seventh when Van Slyke's bases loaded, two out shot was flagged down in deep right center. In the eighth, Merced was thrown out at the plate by Justice trying to score from first on King's one-out double up the right field line. Bonds had led off with a single, but was forced out by Merced, a left handed batter who couldn't move him over to second base.

Still, the Pirates were only three outs away from a trip to the series. Should Patterson get the call from the bullpen with switch hitter Pendleton and lefties Justice and Bream due up or should closer Belinda work the ninth? Neither, as it ended up. Leyland let Drabek start the ninth, although he had thrown some 120 pitches. Pendleton, the first Brave hitter, doubled in front of defensive replacement Espy, who got a poor jump on the ball. Then Lind booted Justice's ground ball. Drabek walked the bases loaded on four pitches - yes, it was Sid Bream he walked - and Stan Belinda was waved in from the bullpen.

Gant drove one to the track in left, but Bonds gloved it as Pendleton scored. Damon Berryhill walked to load the bases again (and the Pirates to this day believe he should have been called out on strikes, but ump Randy Marsh blew the call. Several calls, in fact.) Belinda got Brian Hunter on a pop up to Bell. Two gone and only one out left to reach the world series.

But Francisco Cabrera, the last position player left on the Brave's bench and who would be out of MLB after the 1993 season, got the nod to hit for reliever Jeff Reardon and lined a sharp single into left. Bream kept on chugging around third and down the line as Bonds began his legend as a playoff bust with an off line throw that LaValliere couldn't slap on the sliding Bream. It was crying time again. The entire city was deflated, and the worst was yet to come.

When the wheels finally came off the Bucco ride, they came completely off. The Pirate's inability to compete financially became apparent when Bonds fled to San Fran and Drabek signed with the Astros. Van Slyke went the free agent route in 1995 after two more injury filled years in Pittsburgh. McClatchy's penny pinching drove Leyland away in 1996. And to prove that the wheel keeps on turnin', Sid Bream was just hired as a minor league coach by the Pirates.

The BoSox eventually overcame the curse of the Bambino, and I'm hoping the Bucs can recover from the curse of the Bondino a little more quickly. But judging by the last 15 years...

A poem: My Heart Did Not Burst

my heart did not burst
when ex-Buc Sid Bream
slid his dirty slide
all over the once white plate
just past our pudgy catcher's
too late tag
and the umpire
in the same instant spread both arms
in either direction
signaling an end to world serious hope
for my precious Pirates

my nerves did not snap
despite eight and two-thirds frames
of tension
I did my deepest breathing to relax
control I did not have
over loaded bases and balls that were strikes
that were not called
in the bottom of the 9th
at the unlikely sound
of Francisco Cabrera's homicidal single
my brain did not crack
under tons of promise and possibilities
that twist and untwist but can never undo
the undisputed truth
of 3-2

my arms did not rip
the TV from its cabinet
I could not shatter
the televised outcome
It happened, like a bad wreck
I could not help but watch
the explosion of Atlanta madness
I wished was mine, ours
days, months after the damage

- written by Frank Bienkowski (Pittsburgh musician, Ambridge native, die-hard Pirates fan), April 1993. Published in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review October 14, 2007

flip a coin

Clemente Catch at Shea from Presidential Medal of Freedom

Who's the greatest Bucco right fielder? Why Roberto Clemente, of course...maybe. Maybe not. But it's a very short list to choose from.

Clemente's stats are impeccable. In 18 seasons, he played in 2,433 games, all as a Pirate. He collected 3,000 hits, compiled a .317 lifetime average and won 4 batting titles. The Great One had a little more power than credited for, socking 240 homers even though he switched to a heavy bat early in his career to slow down his swing, while driving home 1,304 runs from the three spot in the order. His slugging average was .475.

His arm and range were unquestioned. Clemente won 12 golden gloves. Who can forget his whirling dervish bullet of a throw to third in the 1971 world series? (He threw out 266 runners in his career.) How many times did he catch a careless runner taking a wide turn by throwing behind him after a single or challenging a hitter that dogged it up the line after stroking a grounder into right? The runners weren't the only ones that had to stay on their toes. I remember one game when he drilled Dick Stuart, the Bucco first sacker better known as Dr. Strangeglove, square in the back with a throw when Stu turned towards the infield, thinking there was no possible play at first.

Roberto also was selected MVP in 1966 and had two world series rings (he was MVP of the 1971 series.) He was whisked into the Hall of Fame without the five year waiting period after that tragic New Year's Eve crash that claimed his life, the first Latin American player to enter Cooperstown.

Clemente was famous as a spokesman for Latino players and a humanitarian. He was also known as a hypochondriac by the press and a jake by some of his team mates because of his non stop griping about his physical condition. He had hurt his back in a 1955 car accident and had surgery on it years later after aggravating it in winter ball.

Still, with his persona, pizazz and production on the field, who could possibly compete with Arriba for the title of best right fielder in Pirate history? Just one guy.

That guy would be Paul "Big Poison" Waner. He had a 20 year career, 15 spent with the Pirates, and played in 2,549 games while wracking up 3,152 hits during the 1920-30s for a .333 lifetime average and 3 batting titles. Though more known as a speedster than a hammer, Waner had a .473 slugging average while driving in 1,309 runs, numbers almost identical to Clemente's. And like Clemente, he was considered one of the era's great baserunners.

Waner was no slouch in the field either. He threw out 241 runners that tested his arm, and was considered an outstanding outfielder. His fielding average of .975 is just a tad better than Clemente's .973.

Big Poison is also a Hall of Famer and was the 1927 MVP. But as a human, he was not quite up to Clemente's standards. Waner was renowned for playing with a hangover. (Casey Stengel said of Big Poison: "He had to be a very graceful player, because he could slide without breaking the bottle on his hip.") When the Pirates finally put him on the wagon in 1938, he responded by hitting a mere .280. It was only the second time in his 15 years as a Buc that he didn't hit .300 or better.

Waner was also near sighted. When he complained that he couldn't read the ads on the right field wall near the end of his Pittsburgh career, the Bucs fitted him with glasses. It was a short lived experiment. The ball that had floated up to the plate like a big fuzzy grapefruit suddenly looked like a tightly spinning BB to him, and he ditched the specs.

His brother Lloyd patrolled center field beside him, and they became Big and Little Poison. (Paul was Big Poison as the elder of the pair.) The nicknames, according to baseball lore, go back to a Brooklyn Dodger game at Ebbets Field, when a fan with a thick Flatbush accent said "Them Waners! It's always the little poison (person) on thoid (third) and the big poison (person) on foist (first)!" The Waner boys still hold the record for most hits by brothers, outdoing the Alou and DiMaggio siblings.

Roberto's #21 was retired by the Bucs, along with Waner's #11. And though they are two distinct personalities from two different eras, who's to say which one was the superior ballplayer?

Now there's a couple of guys just a tick behind them statistically and in tenure. One is Kiki Cuyler, who spent the first seven years of his Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh before a feud with manager Donie Bush chased him to Chicago. Waner took his spot. The other is Dave "The Cobra" Parker, who has marginal HOF stats but whose 19 year career was beset by injuries, weight problems, and cocaine. But his batting stats are top notch, and he was a well above average fielder with a rocket arm. The Cobra was Arriba's successor in right field.

Brian Giles and Bobby Bo? Fuhgetaboutit!

big poison 2
Paul "Big Poison" Waner from Wikipedia

Saturday, January 26, 2008

o ye of little faith

1960 logo
1960 Bucco logo from Baseball Almanac

Does this sound familiar? A new general manager takes over a Pirate team that's laughably incompetent on the field. He blows up the roster, builds up the minors, and promises that he'll produce a contender. But the team fails to produce and goes eight more years before it comes up a winner - for a different GM. The new guy dumps a couple of vets, makes a tweak or two and viola, a world championship a decade after the plan began.

No, it's not the story of today's Bucs. But it worked for us before, and maybe it'll work for us again.

In 1950, Branch Rickey was faced with a Pirate team even worse than our current version. He blew it up and home grew some ballplayers. But by 1955, his time had come and gone. The Pirates lost 100 or more games three times in five years (they called his teams the "Rickey-Dinks"), and Joe Brown took over the reins. But Rickey, the father of the farm system, didn't leave Brown with a bare cupboard.

Dick Groat, Bob Skinner, Bill Virdon, Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente were already in place. The pitching was set at the top end with Bob Friend and Vernon Law. ElRoy Face was in the bullpen as baseball's first great closer, a Danny Murtaugh innovation (Murtaugh, in my mind, is a much underappreciated manager.) Brown added Dick Stuart and Rocky Nelson in the 1958 draft and picked up super sub Dick Schofield from the Cards for Gene Freese and Johnny O'Brien, one of our twin infielders. Ducky Schofield showed the wisdom of that move when he filled in for 1960 MVP Groat in September, when he broke his wrist after getting plunked by Lew Burdette. Schofield hit .333 in that span and played golden D, helping the Bucs pull away from the Milwaukee Braves and St. Louis Cards.

He made one big deal before the 1959 season, getting Don Hoak, Harvey Haddix and Smoky Burgess from the Redlegs for slugger Frank Thomas, Whammy Douglas, Jim Pendleton and Johnny Powers. He had the starting lineup now in place and a solid middle of the pack starter.

Brown added to his depth after the 1959 season by getting Gino Cimoli and Tom Cheney from the Cards for aging vet Ronnie Kline. His blockbuster was getting Hal Smith from KC for Dick Hall, a dependable starter, Ken Hamlin and Hank Foiles. He had his catching platoon set up and a talented if wild hurler in Cheney for the bottom of the pitching rotation (not much call for the fifth starter back in the day except for doubleheaders and injuries) and long relief. Rookie Joe Gibbon served as what passed for that era's set-up man.

And sometimes the best deal is the one you don't make. During the off season, the Bucs almost traded Dick Groat straight up for Roger Maris. But Murtaugh squelched the swap, and Groat went on to win the batting title and NL-MVP in 1960.

Brown only had to make one more move early in the 1960 season, getting Vinegar Bend Mizell from the Cards for Julian Javier, who was effectively blocked by Maz, and Ed Bauta (the Cards threw in Dick Gray, too) to replace Hall in the rotation. And we all know what happened in 1960. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now do we have a core of ballplayers in place like Brown did? Does Huntington have Brown's eye in making up a lineup and deciding the role players from the position players? Do we have an excess in one position or players blocking other younger guys to deal to fill needs? And is Russell another Murtaugh? Or are we closer to the stage when Rickey took over, a decade away from respectability? Time will tell the answers. But at least we can take some solace in knowing its' been done here before.

1960 and that magic moment

forbes field 2
Forbes Field from Ballparks

The weather outside is most assuredly January-ish. It's brrrrrrr with some snow rolling in late tonight, which I'm sure our splendid City road crews will salt and plow as soon as the first flake flutters *hysterical laughter*. But thanks to my sports nut son, I'm thinking warm thoughts. He asked me about the 1960 Bucs, the most unlikely collection of World Series champeens ever collected.

Just thinking of the player's names - Roberto (Arriba, The Great One) Clemente, Bob (The Dog) Skinner, (Shake Rattle and Roll) Smoky Burgess, Dick (Don't Boo Stu, He'll Come Thru) Stuart, Dick (Ducky) Schofield, Don (The Tiger) Hoak, Bill (Billy Maz) Mazeroski, Bill (The Quail) Virdon, Rocky (Don't Knock The Rock) Nelson and Dick Groat, who oddly enough was just known as Dick Groat, pitchers Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell, Harvey (The Kitten) Haddix, Vernon (The Deacon) Law, ElRoy (The Baron of the Bullpen) Face, a menagerie choreographed into a title team by manager Danny (The Smiling Irishman) Murtaugh, is enough to make me grin. All the nicknames, of course, came compliments of Bob (The Gunner) Prince, homer announcer extraordinaire and his partner Jim (The Possum) Woods. What moniker can you stick on one of today's ballplayers except for the Million Dollar Man - and they all answer to that.

The 1960 World Series was the strangest ever contested - the stumblebum Pirates win by a run and then lose by a dozen the next time around to the great Yankee team of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and company, back and forth through six games. But somehow the Bucs manage to stagger to a game seven at Forbes Field where a ground ball off the throat of Tony Kubek, a three run shot by Hal Smith, and Billy Maz lifting the ball over the scoreboard and Yogi Berra in the ninth inning leads to the most dramatic finish ever staged in a game seven. That's what baseball is about.

I listened to the game on my transistor radio on the way home from St. Wendelin's school, and floated on air to the crib just in time to see the live, black and white mob scene after the game on TV. My dad was on, helping hold the crowd back from the announcer, who was busily occupied interviewing ecstatic if somewhat incoherent Pirate fans. And no, he didn't have a ticket. If you gave a ticket to an Oakland guy, he'd scalp it and sneak in anyway. It was a matter of pride - and 1960 economics.

He gets home, the clan jumps in the old clunker, and we ride into Oakland. Paper is flying around like a ticker tape parade in Times Square. Everyone's happy - no gunshots, no couches on fire, no road rage in traffic that's gridlocked worse than the Parkway and Route 51 combined at rush hour. Just partying Buc fans in love with the world.

And Forbes Field, whatta ballyard. It wasn't heaven, as many old timers like to reminisce. There were steel beams everywhere that you couldn't see around. If you were stuck in the left field corner, the third base grandstand blotted out your view of the game. But it was a real baseball park, quirks, blemishes and all. Center field was so far away from home plate - 456', as I recall - that they parked the practice batting cage against it during the games. Some guys would sit in the plaza behind the ivy covered brick walls with their radios, waiting for a home run ball to fly over the wall. Yet right field was a mere 300'. Go figure. Pops woulda threatened Ruth's record if he played his entire career there.

Other fans would perch in the nearby tree limbs and catch the game. Or you could wait until the seventh inning, when the ushers left the bleacher gates open for all comers. They had a lady and her kids that sold hot dogs in left field, sizzling on a charcoal grill, before the FDA and Aramark ruled the ballpark junk food world. Heck, I remember after a game when a flock of us rugrats surrounded Clemente as he left the park. The Great One asked how we were doing in school and scolded us for not looking when we went across the street. Nothing fake about that guy. And if you walked through Oakland on a hot summer night when the Pirates played, everyone would be sitting on their stoops, listening to the Gunner on the radio, sipping an Iron City beer and talking to their neighbors. I guess more than baseball has changed over the years.

And people came to Forbes Field to watch the game - no racing pierogies, no blaring theme songs, no Bucco babes shooting tee shirts and hot dogs into the stands, no post game concerts, fireworks or bobbleheads. Sunday doubleheaders were the norm, and you got to see two games while shelling out for one ticket. Everything was just baseball. What a concept. (Well, except for Benny Benack and his jazz band..."The Bucs Are Going All the Way, All the Way, All the Way, the Bucs Are Going All the Way, All the Way this Year...")

My kids (one is two years out of college and the other a senior) most vivid Pirate playoff memory is Sid Bream trudging down the line like a beer league softball player and beating Barry Bond's soft, errant toss home, hook sliding past a diving Spanky LaValierre. But the dismal play of the past 15 years can't take the sheen off those 1960 guys. I've seen what baseball can do to a town. I hope my boys get to live long enough to experience it, too.