A year ago, when Rich Gossage was the Pirates' late-inning specialist, Tekulve worked mostly the middle innings and had a 10-1 record. "I knew I could take Gossage's place, but I wondered who would take mine," he says. That duty has been shared by Grant Jackson and rookie Eddie Whitson. They have done such a good job—10 wins and eight saves between them—that Tekulve does not even bother going to the bullpen until the sixth inning.
Pittsburgh's offensive strategy is easy to figure. The first two batters, Frank Taveras and Omar Moreno, try to run opponents to death, and the next two, Dave Parker and Stargell, try to pound them to death. Taveras has 35 steals and an improved batting stroke, and Moreno has a league-leading 59 swipes and a team-high 63 walks. Thirty-two of their steals have led to runs.
While Taveras and Moreno crackle like lightning, Parker and Stargell rumble like thunder. Parker leads the team in homers with 23 and RBIs with 91, and last week he took a big step toward successfully defending his batting title—he hit .338 in 1977—by gaining the league lead at .317. Stargell's statistics are 22-72-.292, his best figures since 1975. Together Parker and Stargell wrecked the Braves. Stargell had two doubles and a home run in Friday's 8-3 first-game victory, and Parker had two hits in each game. On Saturday Stargell walloped a mammoth three-run homer in the first inning, and Parker won the game with a bases-loaded single in the 12th, his third hit of the afternoon.
They were not out there alone, of course. Rookie Dale Berra, Yogi's son, the third baseman, had a two-run homer in Friday's 3-0 second-game victory, and he saved a run—and the game—by stabbing a line drive in the eighth inning on Saturday. He had a three-run homer in the ninth Sunday to clinch a 6-3 win.
Stargell, 37, has been slowed by infirmities the last two seasons, and with something called a "sprained fracture" in his right ankle, he says he is now playing at only 70% of capacity. Always quick with a metaphor, he explains his ability to hold on for 17 seasons by comparing himself to a giant oak tree: "Strong roots, a sturdy trunk and branches going out in all directions. When a big storm comes, I bend but don't break, and then I bloom again next year."
Stargell is nowhere near ready for the woodpile. He got his 2,000th hit last week, and he was able to joke about another plateau he reached earlier this season. He became baseball's alltime strikeout leader when he surpassed Mickey Mantle's total of 1,710. That made him, Stargell notes, "King of the U-turns."
Parker, 27, has been hurt, too. He missed the first two weeks of July with a fractured cheekbone following a shattering home-plate collision with Met Catcher John Stearns. When he returned on July 16 his batting average plunged from .316 to .288, but since Aug. 7 he has hit .409.
There is probably no other player in baseball with as much confidence as Parker—or with so much ability to back it up. Not only can he hit, but despite being 6'5" and 235 pounds, he is also one of the fastest of the fleet Pirates. In addition, he has one of the half dozen best arms among big league outfielders. While strutting and crowing around the clubhouse last Saturday, he declared loudly, "Every team needs a foundation, and I'm it. Just look at me," he continued, expanding his massive chest and flexing his arm muscles, which bulge even in repose. "They ought to pay me just to walk around here."
Parker believes he is vastly underpaid, and by current standards he is. General managers concur that he is the best player in the National League, and Tanner says he is "the best in the world." So sorry, Sadaharu. Too bad, Jim Rice. Although his current contract—estimated at $200,000 a year—does not expire until the end of next year, he would like an extension that would make him the highest-paid player in baseball. If he has to be traded to achieve that ambition, he would not mind moving over to Philadelphia. "Just think of that outfield," he rhapsodizes, envisioning himself alongside Greg Luzinski and Garry Maddox. "A pig in left, a greyhound in center and Adonis in right."
It would be easy to discount all this as the raving of an egomaniac, except for the fact that spouting this kind of verbiage is the way Parker prepares himself for each game. "I'm a verbalizer," he says. "Some guys have to meditate to get ready, but I talk trash and come out swinging."