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The city of Pittsburgh has been alternately cursed and blessed this year by two baseball teams, the nine Marx Brothers who opened the season and the gallant swashbucklers who are now closing it. Alas, the two teams are but one. The first of them recalls the 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates, losers of 112 games, and the other the 1971 Pirates, winners of a world championship. Why this has happened is a question to which no one, especially the Pirates themselves, seems to have a plausible response.
To some, such as the ordinarily courteous Willie Stargell, the mere asking constitutes a personal affront. "No secret," said a suddenly dour Willie one morning last week in the visitors' clubhouse at Candlestick Park. "We were losing earlier. We're winning now." It was as if this line of questioning were not entirely unfamiliar to him, an impression heightened by his subsequent riposte, "You haven't been following us, have you?"
"The difference between our team now and the one playing the first half of the season," says young Rightfielder Richie Zisk with mock solemnity, "is that we lost more then and we win more now."
There is no disputing such withering tautology. Pittsburgh, considered a prime contender for the championship
"Sometimes something like that is needed," says Murtaugh, whose mournful countenance looks as if it had been abused by a succession of heavyweight contenders. "It got us moving again, gave us togetherness." Not that he can take credit for it. On fight night, Murtaugh was abed with back trouble. "I was told it was a good one," he says with the smug assurance of a noncombatant.
The Reds are forever brawling with someone, but the Pirates were behaving like patsies at that point in the season. The fight, which resulted from a bean-ball war, revived dormant combativeness. Pittsburgh's Ed Kirkpatrick was seen shoving Sparky Anderson after the Reds' manager stomped—accidentally, Anderson insisted—on his toe.
The Pirates took that game and the succeeding seven. Since the unpleasantness they have won 32 and lost only 13, a pace that had rocketed them from ignominy to first place in their division by the beginning of last week. The pennant battle was hardly won, but for once this season Pittsburgh was the chased, not the chaser. And, as Centerfielder Al Oliver, a .319 hitter who murders pitching and logic with equal facility, said, "It is always better to be chased than to chase."
Last week, in a three-game series with the Giants in San Francisco, the Pirates demonstrated some of the reasons for their revival. They hit when it mattered; they enjoyed effective, if hardly overpowering pitching; they fielded not always well but brilliantly at critical moments; and they were plain lucky.
In the opener they scored 13 runs on 12 hits, all but two of them singles, as Dock Ellis held the Giants to two runs on 10 hits for his eighth straight win. More than any other player, Ellis reflects Pittsburgh's schizophrenic season. He had lost eight of 12 decisions through mid-July; his win last week brought his record to 11-8. The next day in the first of a pair of 11-inning matches, the Pirates scored three times on eight hits, while Starter Jerry Reuss and Reliever Dave Giusti somehow limited the Giants to a single run on 14 hits. Counting walks and errors, 17 Giants reached base in this unusual game. The Pirates eventually won when Kirkpatrick, who plays first base against right-handed pitching, doubled home two runs to break a 1-1 tie that seemed eternal. It was the sixth game-winning hit for Kirkpatrick, an American League transplant. The Giants won the second of the 11-inning ordeals 3-2, the first Pirate defeat after six straight wins. It was a brief reversal. The Pirates opened their next series in Los Angeles with a 4-3 victory, scoring three of their runs in an eighth-inning outburst against relief ace Mike Marshall.