The most predictable and least revealing assessment of any baseball season is the one that says the champion of last fall is the team to beat this year. With that in mind, meet the Pirates. The Fam-i-lee danced and sang and hugged its way to the East Division title, National League pennant and World Series championship last year. It barely held off Montreal in its division, swept Cincinnati in the playoffs and charged from behind against Baltimore in the Series. Pittsburgh won everything there was to win, using every way there is to win. Now it is the team to beat.
Yes, but three National League East teams are capable of beating the Pirates. Montreal and St. Louis showed substantial improvement in 1979, each moving up two places in the standings to a strong second and an encouraging third, respectively. The Expos and Cardinals passed Philadelphia, the champion the three previous seasons, which succumbed to ailments of both body and spirit. The Pirates will need something very much on the order of their 98-victory performance of last year to hold off the Expos and Cardinals, who are surging, and the Phillies, who are resurgent. After all, if the Phillies can plummet from first to fourth, so can Pittsburgh.
The Pirates may be more vulnerable than they appear. Don't forget that if Philadelphia had been healthy, the Pirates might not have won anything in '79. They succeeded largely because Centerfielder Omar Moreno, Leftfielder John Milner, Second Baseman Phil Garner, Shortstop Tim Foli, Catcher Ed Ott and Pitcher Jim Bibby all had the best seasons of their careers.
Of course, one could say that those players merely found themselves the way Tim Foli says he found God. And one could also say that even if they don't all enjoy similar success this season, there are others who can reasonably be expected to do as well as or better than they did a year ago. Rightfielder Dave Parker had good stats for anybody but himself, batting .310 with 25 home runs and 94 RBIs, but he fell off in all the important categories that made him the league's MVP in '78. Pitcher Bert Blyleven had the fewest wins (12) and highest earned run average (3.61) of his career. Two others in the starting rotation, John Candelaria and Don Robinson, won 14 and eight games, respectively, while hampered by injuries. Pittsburgh also has two players who don't need to retain luck, recover from injuries or regain old form to be tough. Whatever else happens, Third Baseman Bill Madlock will hit—he has the highest career average (.320) in the league—and Reliever Kent Tekulve will pitch effectively. He had 31 saves in each of the last two seasons.
Unfortunately, the Pirates cannot be so sure of First Baseman Willie Stargell, who during his 39th birthday celebration in spring training received a faceful of hand-delivered birthday cake from his playful teammates. Stargell was the league's Comeback Player of the Year in '78 and co-MVP, with St. Louis' Keith Hernandez, last season. His two other MVP awards, for his performances in the playoffs and World Series, shouldn't obscure the fact that last year his batting average fell from .295 to .281 and his RBI total from 97 to 82. A similar decline this season could be fatal to the Bucs.
With a strong 25-man roster, Pittsburgh is more capable than most teams of offsetting injuries and poor performances. And in Chuck Tanner the Pirates have a manager who likes to make use of all possible combinations and resources. "The best thing about winning last year was the personal satisfaction I got from knowing I did it my way," he says. Tanner's way involves platooning hitters, shuffling pitchers, stealing bases, pounding fences and smile, brother, smile.
Smiling is something Philadelphia did not do much of after May 28, the last day the Phillies were in first place. By the time Manager Danny Ozark gave way to Dallas Green on Aug. 31, Philadelphia was all the way down to fifth. A strong September allowed the Phillies to finish fourth, only two games behind St. Louis, and left them wondering what might have happened had they had their regular lineup intact for more than 74 games. "Now that we're healthy again, anyone who picked us to win in 1979 should pick us again," says First Baseman Pete Rose.
Rose may have a point. Philadelphia won the 1976, '77 and '78 division titles with largely the same lineup as this year's. Four Phillies—Catcher Bob Boone, Third Baseman Mike Schmidt, Centerfielder Garry Maddox and Second Baseman Manny Trillo—won Gold Gloves last season, and a fifth, Shortstop Larry Bowa, who fielded a league-record .991, should have won one, too. The starting rotation has four good young arms, particularly Dick Ruthven's right one, and one good old one, Steve Carlton's left. If Carlton can get along without his favorite catcher, Tim McCarver, who has retired to the broadcast booth, and if Ruthven and Larry Christenson can remain healthy, the Phillies can better suffer the inconsistencies of the other starters, Randy Lerch and Nino Espinosa. The bullpen will be better, even if its personnel is only slightly different, because Green won't overwork it early in the season as Ozark did. Lerrin LaGrow, who missed most of last season with the Dodgers, will replace Warren Brusstar, who missed most of last year with the Phillies.
Another change for the better is that wrought by Left-fielder Greg Luzinski, who batted a career-low .252 in 1979, .303 on the road and .187 at Veterans Stadium. "The fans really got to me," the Bull says. "You expect to hear boos on the road but not at home."
He also heard a lot of unkind remarks about his beefy body, and he did something about that in the off-season, losing 22 pounds—he's down to 217—by skipping breakfast, eating little, if any, lunch, eliminating desserts and exercising. "I'm not sure it will make any difference in the way I play," he says, "but I gave it a try because everybody was harping about it."