Pittsburgh was in its familiar place last Thursday, the cellar of the National League East, when manager Jim Leyland called the Pirates' public relations man, Greg Johnson, into his office. "See if you can get me the clipping from last Sunday's Newark Star-Ledger in which Howard Johnson had some derogatory things to say about us," Leyland said. "I want it up on the bulletin board before tomorrow's game."
Friday night's game would be against Johnson and the Mets, who are locked in a three-way battle for the division title with St. Louis and Montreal. The Expos and the Cardinals had already come through Pittsburgh for a pair of two-game series earlier in the week, and the Pirates had had a victory in each. "Any little edge helps," said Leyland, referring to the Johnson clipping and his hope of giving New York the same unfriendly treatment he'd given St. Louis and Montreal.
A last-place team looking for an edge three weeks before winter vacation? "We have our own little pennant race going in our own little second season," says reliever Jim Gott. "Hey, we're the first-place team in our season. And we're playing like it."
Are they ever. Between a watershed team meeting on Aug. 24 and last Sunday, the Pirates had gone 19-6, climbed out of the cellar to within three games of fourth place after having been nine games out of fifth. Pittsburgh is a young team, rich in pitching and defense, that will be a force in 1988, but last week it proved to be a force in 1987 as well, by playing tough with each of the division's big three.
On Monday, Sept. 14, the Pirates battled Montreal for 14 innings—"to exhaustion," said Expos manager Buck Rodgers—before losing 6-4. Tuesday they beat Montreal 5-1. Mike Bielecki pitched 6⅓ perfect innings in that game, and John Cangelosi scored the first run by stealing home—the first such steal by a Pirate since 1966. On Wednesday, St. Louis came to town and built an 8-2 lead, but Pittsburgh battled back and got the tying run up to the plate in the eighth inning before losing 8-5. Then on Thursday, Mike Dunne, the best rookie pitcher in baseball, moved to within 0.11 of the major league ERA lead with a 1-0 shutout of the club that traded him last spring. On Friday it was New York's turn. After the Mets took a 3-0 lead on Darryl Strawberry's first-inning homer, the Pirates came back with four in the bottom of the first, beginning with lead-off man Cangelosi's home run on the first pitch thrown by former Pittsburgh ace John Candelaria in his first appearance as a Met. The Pirates went on to pound out 17 hits in a 10-9 victory, which ended with Gott firing a called third strike past Strawberry and catcher Mike (Spanky) LaValliere throwing out Johnson—he of bulletin-board fame—attempting to steal second. After losing to the Mets 5-4 on Saturday, Pittsburgh came from behind Sunday to win 9-8 in 14 innings and take the series.
The Bucs have a good reason to be turned on by playing contenders. Eight of the players new to this year's Pirates came from clubs that led divisions last week: Gott, catcher Mackey Sasser and reliever Jeff Robinson from the Giants; Dunne, LaValliere and outfielder Andy Van Slyke from the Cardinals; and outfielders Darnell Coles and Terry Harper from the Tigers. "We'd like to finish .500 and in fourth place," says pitcher Brian Fisher, who came over from those semi-contenders, the Yankees. "But the most important motivation is that we're playing for our own self-respect, which will carry over into next year."
"When I came up," says Bielecki, who came to Pittsburgh from the minors to stay on Sept. 9, 1985, "most everyone who wasn't playing was up in the clubhouse during the game, eating pizza and watching TV. No one gave a damn. This is like a whole new world." The Pirates back then were a scandal-ridden joke. Several players had been summoned to testify in a trial involving the trafficking of drugs in the clubhouse. There was speculation that the Bucs would be sold and relocated. On the field, representing a franchise that won six division titles and two world championships in the '70s, were a bunch of high-salaried has-beens like George Hendrick and Jason Thompson, who clearly shared the community's lack of interest in the grand old game. No wonder Pittsburgh drew only 735,900 fans for the '85 season.
Something had to be done. Club president Daniel M. Galbreath's first moves were to fire general manager Harding (Pete) Peterson, and to lure back from his West Coast scouting assignment Joe L. Brown, who had been the club's general manager from 1955 to 1976. When Brown replaced manager Chuck Tanner with Leyland and himself with Syd Thrift (Brown remains on the club's board of directors), a lot of people thought he had lost his mind. Whereas Tanner had led the Pirates to the world championship in 1979, Leyland had managed only two big league games while serving as a White Sox coach. And Thrift hadn't held any job in baseball since the end of the 1976 season, when, as Oakland's director of minor leagues and scouting, he had watched the disintegration of the A's. With the likes of Sal Bando, Don Baylor, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers abandoning the team via the first free-agent reentry draft, Thrift decided to take his leave, too. He complained as he went that "baseball was going away from scouting and development and into the insane world of purchasing agents." He returned to his native Virginia, started a successful real estate business and restricted his baseball involvement to the amateur level.
Now Thrift was running the Pirates. He had been a scout for Pittsburgh from 1957 through the 1967 season, having signed such players as Al Oliver, Don Money and Woodie Fryman. Then he joined the Kansas City Royals and ran their famous baseball academy for four years. There he gained a reputation as something of a Gyro Gearloose for his fascination with the aerodynamics of baseballs, an interest he maintains to this day. Out of the blue he's apt to launch into a discourse on how many times a four-seam fastball—one that is held across the seams—rotates between the pitcher's hand and home plate. But few people in baseball question his talent-spotting ability, and that's exactly what Brown was looking for.
"We had to perform a complete overhaul and start regaining the community's respect," says Thrift. "The players here were conditioned to losing. We had to change everything that went with the recent past." The rebuilding began with the unloading of veterans Hendrick, Candelaria, Al Holland and Bill Madlock. Thrift increased the annual scouting and development budget from $2.5 million to $4.5 million and implemented a program adapted from his old Royals' academy curriculum that included two- and four-seam fastball aerodynamics, measured leads for base runners, the timing of catchers' and pitchers' releases and seminars on such subjects as "the two-strike hitting approach."