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Hello down there...down there...down there. We can hardly see you, Pittsburgh Pirates...Pirates...Pirates. The National League misses you...misses you...misses you. Please come back soon with your Fam-i-lee...i-lee...i-lee....
This is a sad story, so sad that it's almost funny—and maybe even hopeful. After all, any team with young pitching and an Egyptian shortstop can't be completely written off. But the numbers are grim for the Pirates, world champions just six years ago, division title contenders as recently as 1983. Now the Bucs are in last place in the NL East with a disastrous 40-87 record, 38 games behind St. Louis. They're a sure bet to lose more than 100 games, and if they play their cards wrong, they have an outside shot at sinking below the magic .300 mark.
The Pirates haven't won three straight games all season. Until last Saturday, when they beat the Reds 6-0 in Cincinnati, they had lost 19 consecutive road games, just three shy of the major league record held by the 1963 Mets and the 1890 Pirates. They have the worst ERA in the league (4.01) and the second-lowest batting average (.239). The once-mighty Lumber Company, now turning out dowels, has hit 59 home runs this season, only five more than Ralph Kiner alone smacked in 1949.
Worst of all, the Pirates have drawn only 10,501 fans per home game, perhaps four of whom have attempted to cheer. Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez recently called Three Rivers Stadium "a morgue." More than a few Pirate players expect baseball to die soon in the city. "Even in the great years this place didn't draw," says first baseman Jason Thompson. "The [troubled] economics of the city can't be the only reason. There are depressed cities that support their teams. The fans here are apathetic."
"You don't mind getting booed on the road, but it really hurts at home," said longtime third baseman Bill Madlock just before he was traded to the Dodgers on Saturday. "The other day [infielder] Jim Morrison got hit by a pitch and the fans cheered."
The team, which lost $5.8 million in 1984, was put up for sale by its genial owners, the Galbreath family, last November. So far, no one has met the reported $40 million asking price. "It took 8½ months before we got an offer from someone in the Pittsburgh area," team president Dan Galbreath told SI's Jim Reynolds. "The most incredible and disturbing thing is that the people and government of the city don't believe us when we say we're losing money. We show them our books and they still don't believe us. Forty years in baseball and we don't have credibility with the people of Pittsburgh."
Local fans have been turned off by rumors linking their team—even the mascot, the Pirate Parrot—to a major drug investigation which comes to trial this week. They've also complained about the team's poor play and the inaccessibility of the stadium. "They're just looking for an excuse not to come," said Madlock. "They fill the place for the Steelers." A crowd of 31,384 did show up for Ballot by the Ballpark Day in June, a promotion designed to demonstrate fan support. The fans heckled the Bucs as they lost 9-2 to the Cubs.
Pirate management has tried to rekindle interest, for instance coaxing Willie Stargell to serve as first base coach. But nothing has helped. In April the team brought back popular radio broadcaster Bob Prince after a 10-year hiatus; in June, Prince died of throat cancer. That same month the Bucs reunited their 1960 world championship team for an Old-Timers' game. Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, Elroy Face—what memories!—but the weather forecast that night called for rain. Only 10,897 showed up.
The local press has also been tough on the team. In early July the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story on Saul Lopez, a pitcher in the Pirate farm system, who had confessed to the murder of a Macon, Ga. woman. Pittsburgh general manager Joe L. Brown complained that the story was a year old. But he knows the Bucs' problems can't be blamed on reporters. "You talk to 10 people about the Pirates and you'll get 11 answers about what's wrong with them," says Brown.
What has troubled the Pirates on the field has been a combination of bad trades, slumps, disgruntlement and injuries. Last winter Harding (Pete) Peterson, then the Pittsburgh G.M., tried to add punch to a feeble-hitting but seemingly pitching-rich Pirate lineup by swapping lefthander John Tudor to the Cardinals for George Hendrick, acquiring Steve Kemp from the Yankees and signing free agent Sixto Lezcano from the Phillies. My, what a bonanza! Hendrick hit .230 with two home runs and 25 RBIs, grumbled constantly and failed to hustle. He was sent to California last month. Kemp has contributed a .237 average, two homers and 20 RBIs. Lezcano has batted .220 with three HRs and nine RBIs. Meanwhile, Tudor is 16-8 with seven shutouts and a 2.03 ERA for St. Louis, and another ex-Pirate, Lee Lacy, who became a free agent last winter, is hitting .313 for the Orioles. Peterson, understandably, is now a former general manager, having been fired May 23 with the Pirates already 11½ games out.