SI Vault
Peter Gammons
September 28, 1987
By beating the NL East contenders, Pittsburgh may have provided a preview of 1988
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 28, 1987

The Bucs Don't Stop Here

By beating the NL East contenders, Pittsburgh may have provided a preview of 1988

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

Thrift also scrapped Brown's list of candidates to replace Tanner and hired Leyland. "We didn't have much here except some unbelievable contracts," says Thrift. "Jim and I knew that it would take us a year and a half of study to make the decisions on what we had to do." While they evaluated talent, Leyland quickly made his reputation as a manager. "He's the best I've ever been around," says pitching coach Ray Miller, who has been around a lot of managers, including Earl Weaver and Ray Miller. The players like him because he's not afraid to speak his mind. Leyland, says Van Slyke, "cheers for you and airs you out—but to your face—with positive criticism."

In July 1986, Leyland made a lasting impression on his players when he called catcher Tony Pena—at the time, Pittsburgh's only real remaining baseball hero—into his office and told him that there were a lot of things in his game that he would have to change. Before this season, Pena was traded for Dunne, Van Slyke and LaValliere. When the Cards came to Pittsburgh last week, Pena hugged Leyland and thanked him for his advice.

Before this season, Thrift knew that trading would be tricky because, he says, "I had only two real trump cards." One was 34-year-old pitcher Rick Rhoden, who was sent to the Yankees for pitchers Fisher, Doug Drabek and Logan Easley. The other was the 30-year-old Pena, and the trade Thrift made for him may have been the steal of the year. LaValliere, 27, is a potential Gold Glove catcher; Van Slyke, 26, is a brilliant centerfielder who at the end of last week had hit 19 homers and stolen 31 bases; and Dunne, 24, was 9-1 with a 1.94 ERA in his last 13 starts. He, Drabek and Fisher are the big three on a starting staff that through Sunday was 29-18, 3.53 since the All-Star break.

"Pitching and defense are the fastest way to the top," says Leyland. But Thrift didn't stop there. He picked up two useful utility players, shortstop Al Pedrique from the Mets and Cangelosi from the White Sox. In 1986 he had gotten Bobby Bonilla, a big, switch-hitting outfielder from the White Sox. Leyland kept him under wraps through June, then made him the regular third baseman, replacing Jim Morrison, who was traded to Detroit for the talented but enigmatic Coles. Bonilla was hitting .296 with 15 homers at week's end, and Coles hit his second Pirate home run on Sunday, a grand slam that helped beat New York.

The Pirates never talked about second baseman Johnny Ray's limited range and arm until after they traded him to the Angels on Aug. 29 for two minor leaguers. Ray's replacement, the acrobatic Jose Lind, has further strengthened Pittsburgh's defense, as the Expos saw last week when Lind went to the shortstop side of second to get a ball hit by Andres Galarraga and then robbed Tim Raines by reaching a hard grounder in the hole between first and second.

Thrift also used two deals with San Francisco to fortify his bullpen, getting Gott and Sasser for Don Robinson, and then dealing Rick Reuschel for Robinson and minor league reliever Scott Medvin. Thrift expects big things from the league's hardest-throwing lefty, reliever John Smiley. "Pittsburgh has more good arms than any team in baseball, by far," says Phillies scout Hank King. Says one G.M., "They're the only team with quality pitching to spare, so they can make themselves one helluva deal for the righthanded bat and shortstop they need."

As a result of Thrift's tinkering, 48 different players have worn Pirate uniforms this year. Morale hit a low when Reuschel was traded on Aug. 21. "Big Daddy was the most popular player on the team," says Leyland. Pittsburgh immediately lost three straight in Atlanta, so when it returned home on Aug. 24, Thrift addressed the players. "The trades are over," he told them. "This is the club we want. You're here because we wanted you. There are 38 games left in this second season. Set some goals."

"Twenty-five more wins," Gott shouted out.

"When I said goals, I meant realistic goals," Thrift replied. "We're 53-71."

"We'll win 25 more," Gott repeated.

Continue Story
1 2 3