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Swashbucklers
Steve Rushin
August 05, 1991
A deep Pirate crew has carved out the best record in baseball
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August 05, 1991

Swashbucklers

A deep Pirate crew has carved out the best record in baseball

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Meanwhile, Redus, who platoons at first base with Orlando Merced, recently spent his spare time overseeing the Pirates' first official Around the World Basketball Tournament, played on a miniature hoop and backboard fastened to a wall of their clubhouse at home. A fortnight ago, reserve infielder Curtis Wilkerson narrowly defeated admittedly nervous catcher Mike (Spanky) LaValliere in the final of the deadly serious week-long shooting match.

Given this group, one is tempted to congratulate rookie third baseman John Wehner, he of the nine career major league games through Sunday, when he says, "I don't feel like I really fit in yet. I just sit back and laugh at all this funny stuff going on around me."

Pittsburgh native Wehner made his first major league start on July 19. Four nights later, he went 5 for 5 before the home folks. He has since been compared with his homophonous forebears, Pirate Hall of Famers Paul and Lloyd Waner, a.k.a. Big and Little Poison, respectively. Pittsburghers are not awaiting the result of toxicology reports to see if the comparisons are valid. They are instead giving Wehner standing ovations for virtually anything he does, including jogging from third base to the dugout at the end of an inning.

"It was getting pretty embarrassing towards the end [of the home stand] there," Wehner said after going 2 for 4 with two RBIs in the Pirates' 11-5 win over the Astros last Saturday night. "My family is probably the happiest about it. I'm more happy that I'm making so many other people happy."

How happy are the Pirates? Even the nastiest guy on the team is named Smiley. Lefthanded pitcher John Smiley (12-6, 3.36 ERA) is a karate enthusiast who took his first lesson as a teenager. "The guy who ran the school was beating up on him," says pitching coach Ray Miller, with relish, "so Smiley leveled him. Then he found a new teacher."

To Smiley's left in the Astrodome's visiting clubhouse was another lefthander, silent starter Randy (Whisper) Tomlin. Whisper improved to 6-3 with a 2.23 ERA last Saturday night, but he had a consecutive scoreless string of 23 innings snapped in the sixth. In the clubhouse after the game, his string of consecutive speechless games also ended. "I don't say much," acknowledges the affable Tomlin. "And when I do, it's pretty quiet."

Because his fingers are even shorter than his sentences, Tomlin cannot throw a traditional forkball. Seeking to master another kind of changeup at Class A Salem, Va., two summers ago, he tried holding the ball between the middle and fourth fingers of his left hand, a perfectly ridiculous proposition that nevertheless worked for Tomlin and that has since become known as the Vulcan Grip. No other player in recent memory has used the grip, and no player has asked Tomlin to teach him the pitch, either. This may be because it is impossible to throw for strikes. Impossible, that is, for anyone but Tomlin, who says, somewhat perplexed himself, "The funny thing is, I've been throwing it for strikes since the first time I ever tried it."

For those who require proof, the Pirates can provide it. The Bucs chart everything from pitches to Luises. A Luis is what the Pirates call an undeserved bloop hit; they are kept track of on a chart in their Three Rivers clubhouse. The chart is signed by Chicago infielder and bloopmeister Luis Salazar, for whom the hits are named, and is, unaccountably, accompanied by a poster of a hydrogen bomb exploding.

The Pirates also bestow on hapless teammates the Sammy, an Oscar-like trophy that closer Bill Landrum bought in a brass shop in Philadelphia. Named for infielder Sammy Khalifa, an erstwhile Buc known for his mental lapses, the statuette is awarded for excessive boneheadedness after games the team has won.

But perhaps the Pirates' most precious keepsake is the fresh memory of 26-year-old catcher Jeff Banister, who for four days last week was a major league player and the game's most inspirational story. As a high school junior in La Marque, Texas, Banister developed cancerous cysts on his left anklebone. Doctors performed seven operations in an effort to remove the growths. Before one of the surgeries, Banister was told the leg might have to be amputated. "I didn't know if I'd have the leg when I woke up," he says. "I pleaded with my family not to let them take the leg. I'd been an athlete my whole life. I was only 16."

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