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The Pirates Are Strictly The Pits
Craig Neff
September 09, 1985
Would anybody like to buy a ball club that's 20 games out of fifth place and averaging fewer than 11,000 fans per game?
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September 09, 1985

The Pirates Are Strictly The Pits

Would anybody like to buy a ball club that's 20 games out of fifth place and averaging fewer than 11,000 fans per game?

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"Earlier in the season the team lacked competitiveness," says Brown, a former Pirate G.M. (1956-76) who came out of retirement after Peterson was axed. "There was no vitality or exuberance." There was dissension, however, and Brown moved to stop it by trading off Hendrick and veteran pitcher John Candelaria, both of whom he described as "disturbing influences." He packaged the two of them with reliever Al Holland and sent them to California in exchange for outfielder Mike Brown, 25, and pitcher Pat Clements, 23. "You're going to be my guest in October when the Angels are in the World Series," a delighted Hendrick told him.

But that trade hasn't improved the disappointing play of Pittsburgh's other starters. All-Star caliber second baseman Johnny Ray, hampered lately by a groin pull, is hitting just .263, nearly 50 points below his .312 mark of last year. Centerfielder Marvell Wynne, another young cornerstone of the franchise, has spent a month on the DL with sprains of both ankles; at .209 he's hitting less than some of the Pirate pitchers, one of whom is Jim Winn. Both are funny names to have on these Pirates.

The pitching staff, tops in the league in ERA in 1984 (3.11) despite the BUGS' last-place (75-87) finish, has faltered badly. Only one pitcher, Rick Reuschel, has a winning record (10-7) and some have spectacular losing marks—Lee Tunnell is 1-9 and Jose DeLeon is 2-15.

To be sure, this is not the worst Pittsburgh team ever. That honor goes to the legendary 1890 club, which was depleted by defections to a short-lived rival circuit called the Players League. That team lost 23 straight at one point—including three in one day against Brooklyn—and finished 23-113, a hefty 66½ games out. The club was so bad it drew 17 for one game.

The Bucs of the early and mid-1950s were nearly as horrible, especially the 1952 team led by Kiner, Groat, Gus Bell and Joe Garagiola, which seems to have produced more TV announcers than victories and finished 42-112, a whopping 54½ games out. But from those lean years came the core of the 1960 world champions. "I see all sorts of similarities between those teams and this one," says Pirate coach Bob Skinner, a rookie on the 1954 Pittsburgh team that went 53-101 to end up in last place, 44 games back. "We were very young players straight out of the farm system. A lot of us got to the major leagues prematurely because of the direction the club was trying to take. The situation is very similar now. We're using players who are learning as they're playing, which is a hard way to do it."

The Bucs were actually showing signs of progress on the field before last week. Then they went to Atlanta to play the floundering Braves, winners of just one game in their last 13. Atlanta promptly swept a three-game set, taking two of the games in the last of the ninth. "It was amazing," said Mike Brown, shaking his head. "They were getting all these dink hits and luck." But that's the story of this year's Pirates. The Bucs traveled to Cincinnati on Thursday and by Friday had stretched their scoreless streak to 21 consecutive innings. Friday's 1-0 defeat was another decided in the bottom of the ninth, when leftfielder Denny Gonzales tripped going for a fly ball, allowing the Reds' winning run to score from second.

The Pirates also showed their knack for killing rallies—their own, that is—in rare style. In the fourth inning of Thursday's 6-0 loss to the Reds, Pittsburgh loaded the bases with just one out, bringing to bat rookie shortstop Sammy Khalifa, believed to be the first big-leaguer ever of Egyptian descent. Khalifa, 21, who was born in Fontana, Calif., seems as American as the Red, Rose; the native Egyptian is his father, Rashad, a chemist and devout Muslim who once tutored Ahmad Rashad (then Bobby Moore) in the Islamic religion. "The guys are always asking me stuff like where's my camel," says Sammy, rolling his eyes. Since being called up from the minors June 22 to become the Bucs' sixth starting shortstop of the season, Khalifa has displayed a good arm, decent range and an adequate bat, hitting .218 with extra-base power. "He's capable of playing shortstop on a world championship team," says manager Chuck Tanner.

Here Khalifa lofted a fly to Dave Parker in rightfield. Brown, on third base, tagged up and tried to score. Parker answered with one of his patented Cobra throws, which Reds catcher Bo Diaz snared two steps up the third-base line. Diaz swung around and caught Brown—who hadn't started to slide—with a mighty uppercut tag to the chin. Brown dropped like a stone. End of rally.

Fortunately for the Bucs, they're in the hands of the ever-sunny Tanner, a bastion of patience who wears a little gold ATTITUDE pin on his cap. "You don't look at this as a tough year," Tanner says brightly. "You look at it as a year when you have to regroup. We're a young team, just a couple players away from being a contender. We could be there by '87." Of course, the Pirates could be anywhere by 1987, including Denver, Tampa or Washington, D.C.

Tanner himself heads up one of the groups interested in buying the team. A lifelong resident of the Pittsburgh area, he is not put off by its declining population or economic hard times. "This is not something I would normally do," he says. "But these aren't normal circumstances."

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