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


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

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are loose. "I want the players to feel like they're going to have a fun summer," says manager Jim Leyland, head counselor at Camp Winapennant. The Pittsburgh Pirates are tight. Says bullpen coach Rich Donnelly, "Jim considers his team to be his 25 sons."

Twelve years after they marched to their last world championship to an anthem by Sister Sledge, the Pirates are once again a fam-i-lee. Still, step into the Bucs' clubhouse in Three Rivers Stadium, and you do not step into an episode of The Brady Bunch.

Take knife-totin' second baseman Jose (Chico) Lind, one of the reasons that at week's end Pittsburgh had the best record (60-35) in baseball and a seven-game lead over the second-place New York Mets in the National League East. According to centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, Lind keeps a long butcher knife in his Three Rivers locker. Fortunately, Lind left his blade behind last week, as the Pirates began their longest road trip in more than seven years. When their journey ends, the Bucs will have played 14 games in as many days, beginning with one last Friday night in Houston, where Pittsburgh looked a little too tight.

Actually, it was pitcher Bob Walk, a 34-year-old righthander, who was tight. Is tight. Walk may be the tightest man in baseball, and possibly on the planet. His right groin is like gravity: He can constantly feel it pulling. Six times in the last three seasons, Walk has been removed from a game or disabled because of a strained right groin muscle. But last week, zing went the strings of his ham, instead. Walk had been bothered by a strained left hamstring until last Friday, when he more painfully strained his right hamstring while rounding third base. He pulled up, grimacing, halfway to home while trying to score on a single by Orlando Merced, limped several yards, collapsed in a dust-heap just shy of the batter's box, crawled briefly and then somehow was called safe at the plate before being trundled from the field and into the trainer's room. "A sniper got him," Leyland said after the Pirates' 8-1 win over the Astros.

The beloved, hyperemotional Leyland is one of four lightning rods of attention on this team. His trail of tears has been well mapped: He wept when the Bucs won the National League East title last year; when free-agent first baseman Sid Bream signed with the Atlanta Braves last winter; and when the Pirates came from five runs behind in the 11th inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs in April to win, impossibly, 13-12.

The world is also well aware of the general's three-star outfield. Centerfielder Van Slyke (who was hitting .253 with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs through Sunday), rightfielder Bobby Bonilla (.305, 13 and 64) and leftfielder Barry Bonds (.292, 15 and 70) hit in the three, four and five spots in the Pirate lineup, and Bonilla and Bonds are among the league's top 10 in RBIs. Too often, though, the Pirates are reduced to a simple caricature of the sobbing skipper and baseball's best outfield, as if they were nothing more than three men and a baby.

It is time to go public with the rest of these Buc privates. There is the infield anchored by Lind, a .263 hitter who plays the glitziest second base in baseball, and by shortstop Jay Bell, who hits the ball either very short (at week's end he led the majors with 21 sacrifice bunts) or very long (he crushed three home runs in the expansive Astrodome over the weekend to give him 12 for the season).

The starting rotation goes deeper than 1990 Cy Young winner Doug Drabek. The depth comes from men like Walk, who is capable indeed—he was 7-2 with a 3.15 ERA through last weekend-when, that is, he can live up to his surname. And from the three-lefty, three-righty bullpen-by-committee that includes Bob (Cowboy) Patterson, an inventor with a degree in industrial technology from East Carolina.

At home and on the road, Cowboy Bob keeps four of what look like cans of hair mousse lined up in his locker. A closer look at the containers—and at Patterson's hair—reveals them to be something else entirely: Dr. Glove Professional Glove Conditioner, a spray-oil that the 32-year-old Patterson concocted and is now marketing. "I'm dabbling in other things," he says, "but as far as being a full-time inventor, I don't think I could provide for my family." So he makes do with short relief, having a record of 1-0 with a 4.23 ERA this season after going 8-5 with a 2.95 ERA in his first full season a year ago.

Would-be cowboys Tommy Sandt and Gary Redus, meanwhile, are on the field, anguishedly singing along with the Astrodome public address system to All My Ex's Live in Texas. Renaissance first base coach Sandt, a Brooklyn native who looks a lot like oatmeal pitchman Wilford Brimley, spent an April morning giving hitting, pitching and fielding pointers to members of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which was performing a dance adaptation of Casey at the Bat. "I'm the only one who would do it," says Sandt of his selection as tutor to the tutu set. "The dancers did a real good job, though—especially the pitcher. He had a real, uh, unique windup at first. We changed that."

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