And they thought swing was dead. The Pittsburgh Pirates and their legendary bats were buried near the bottom of the National League East at the All-Star break. But since then they've been baseball's hottest team. They took over first place on July 20 and by the end of last week their second-half record was 20-7.
In their astonishing turnabout, the Pirates, as real Pirates do, have been hitting: .284 since the break. But they have also gotten help from a few unlikely sources, including some batting cages north of Pittsburgh, a sportswriter from Virginia and a bird dog in New Jersey.
The North Park Batting Cages had a distinguished visitor for the three days of the break. Each day Dave Parker, a.k.a. the Cobra, Parkway, Bluto, went to North Park with his 20-month-old daughter Danielle to work on his swing. At the time, Parker was batting .242 with a measly three home runs and 21 runs batted in, and the Buccos were in fifth place, 6½ games out of first, trailing even the Cubs. Fifty-five cents buys you 10 pitches, and Parker spent more than $5 a day, which came to about 300 swings in three days. And in one of those swings, he found the secret to the Pirates' astonishing rise to the top of the National League East. From the All-Star break to the end of last week, Parker hit .340 with three homers and 14 RBIs, raising his average 29 points. Not coincidentally, the Pirates were tearing up the opposition. Their six victories last week—three over the Padres in Pittsburgh, three over the Mets in New York—put them a game ahead of second-place Philadelphia and St. Louis. The Pirates, who are paying Parker $1 million on this, the final year of his contract, owe him another $15.
Pirate fans owe Parker, too, and on the last homestand, they began to repay him. Once they pelted him with boos and radio batteries. But on July 19 they gave him a standing ovation for a nice catch he made against the Dodgers, and on Monday of last week, after his third hit of the game, a three-run eighth-inning homer, beat the Padres 6-3, they called him out of the dugout. Hard as it is to believe, it was the first curtain call of his career.
The next night, in Parker's first at bat of the second game of a doubleheader, they gave him another heartwarming ovation. The Pittsburgh fans also may be saying goodby: Parker can, and probably will, become a free agent at the end of this season.
In the meantime, as Steve Garvey of the Padres says, "The coil is back in the Cobra." Parker will drag his 32-year-old body up to the plate as if he were in an oldtimers' game. Then he'll lash a line drive and steal second. Parker is frightening not only to pitchers, but to first basemen who must stare into his power and to infielders who feel the earth move when he steals. There are 25 pounds less of Parker than there once were, thanks to the Cambridge Diet, but 235 pounds is 235 pounds. Still, he looks great.
In a way, the Pirates have been just like Parker, limping along until they've convinced just about everyone that they're through, and then they make their move. And it hasn't just been Parker. Marvell Wynne, the best baseball name to come along in a while, arrived from the minors in mid-June, and since then Pittsburgh has been wynning, thanks to his marvellous talents in center-field and leading off. He came recommended by, of all people, a sportswriter.
Pirate pitching had been steady, if unspectacular, until last week, when Jose DeLeon, up from Hawaii by way of Perth Amboy, N.J. and the Dominican Republic, flirted with two no-hitters. On Wednesday, in his second major league start, he held the Padres hitless for 6⅓ innings and won 10-1. On Sunday he carried a no-hitter into the ninth against the Mets until, with one out, Hubie Brooks singled past Shortstop Dale Berra. Even though the Pirates eventually lost 1-0 in 12 innings, it was a great day for Perth Amboy, DeLeon's adopted hometown. "I used 50 passes, and that wasn't enough," he said after the game.
DeLeon may have just arrived, but Larry McWilliams has been doing his job all season. He has emerged as one of the best lefthanders in the league this year. And Kent Tekulve is up to his old underhanded ways as the bullpen's finisher.
And, of course, there is the Pirate stock-in-trade—hitting. Leftfielder Mike Easier was hitting .327 through last Sunday and Third Baseman Bill Madlock was chasing his fourth batting title at .328. First Baseman Jason Thompson was third in the league in on-base percentage. Catcher Tony Peña and Second Baseman Johnny Ray were in the .290s, Berra had raised his average nearly 30 points to .243, and reserves Lee Lacy and Jim Morrison were hitting .312 and .354, respectively.