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When lefthander Neal Heaton of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitched seven innings in the rain at Three Rivers Stadium last Saturday night, he reached back for the hottest new pitch in baseball. Three times he needed a ground ball double play to extricate himself from trouble against the Houston Astros, and three times he summoned his screw-knuckle-change to get one.
Heaton's curious pitch has drastically altered his fortunes, not to mention how it has helped turn around those of the Bucs. After a 61-83 career record in eight big league seasons, at week's end Heaton was off to a 6-0 start—including the 3-1 Pittsburgh victory on Saturday—the best for a Pirate pitcher since Burleigh Grimes went 10-0 to open the 1929 season. What's more, Pittsburgh's 22-9 start and 4½-game lead in the National League East were calling up happy echoes of other Pirates past.
A slugging trio of outfielders brings to mind the Lumber Company of 1971, and a fun-loving clubhouse draws comparisons to the shimmying Fam-i-lee of '79. Although disco is dead, these Bucs have latched on to the craze of the times—pizza-chomping terrapins.
But what really has Iron City drinkers swiveling on their bar stools are the flashbacks to the 1960 Pirates. A 30th anniversary celebration of that world championship season will be held June 16 at Three Rivers, and The Pittsburgh Press is running a day-to-day recap of the year. There are parallels between the '60 and '90 teams, from MVP-caliber rightfielders (Roberto Clemente then, Bobby Bonilla now) to catchers called Smoky (Burgess) and Spanky (Mike LaValliere) to gifted centerfielders wearing No. 18 (Bill Virdon, Andy Van Slyke). Most of all, after contending in '58, the Bucs stumbled the next season only to make a few key deals, get off to a quick start and rediscover a knack for winning in '60.
Thus far, the same can be said of the 1990 Pirates, who are following manager Jim Leyland's credo: "When you've got a team that's not a powerhouse, a good club that's not outstanding, there's a chance for everyone to be a hero." Last Friday, it was righthander Doug Drabek, who pitched a five-hitter against Houston in a 4-3 win that raised his record to 6-1. It was Heaton's turn on Saturday, then righthander Bob Walk pitched seven innings, allowed five hits and matched his career-high of eight strikeouts in a 5-1 victory on Sunday.
Pittsburgh had won 18 of its last 22 games and was off to its hottest getaway since a 22-8 start in 1977. "I think we're a good club," says reserve outfielder R.J. Reynolds. "And if we don't get hurt, we're a great club."
At this time last year the Pirates were limping and lost, 14-19 on their way to a 74-88 record and fifth place in the National League East. The injury report in April 1989: bullpen stopper Jim Gott, right elbow surgery, out for the season (and now with the Los Angeles Dodgers); first baseman Sid Bream, right knee surgery, out for the year; LaValliere, left knee surgery, out for three months; Van Slyke, strained muscle, out for a month. There had been a hint of the coming misfortunes in spring training when pitcher Brian Fisher suffered a 10-inch gash in his left arm while playing miniature golf; he leaned on a putter, and it snapped in two. Fisher appeared in only nine games in '89 and has since been released.
For the season, injuries cost the Pirates nearly 600 man-games, more than their total for the three previous years, during which Leyland had forged a hapless club into a contender. Last season coach Gene Lamont even began posting the lineup card upside down in the dugout, hoping to reverse the Bucs' run of bad luck.
Friends call Leyland "Humperdinck" because of his humpty-dumpty style of hitting as a minor league catcher and his Engelbert-like tenor on bus rides in the minors, and in 1989 he could have crooned There Goes My Everything on a daily basis. "Last year was the toughest one I've spent in baseball," says Leyland. "I couldn't camouflage my feelings. In 10 days we lost four key players. It wasn't that I didn't like what was here, but when the team that was supposed to be here wasn't here, it was tough. It was like it took the heart and soul out of me."
The 45-year-old Leyland gave up coffee and a 20-year cigarette habit in the off-season—he puffs on cigars now—as an exercise in self-control. Meanwhile the Pirate front office added depth to the roster. General manager Larry Doughty traded pitchers Jeff Robinson and Willie Smith to the Yankees for catcher Don Slaught, who at week's end was hitting .391 platooning against lefthanders. Three free agents were signed: infielder Wally Backman (.310), starting pitcher Walt Terrell (1-1, with a 4.25 ERA), reliever Ted Power (three saves, 3.14 ERA). Says Doughty, "We felt going in we needed at least two players at each position. My own opinion is we have the best bench in baseball. Certainly we have the highest-paid."