The Beaver County Times was open on the counter top when I walked in the door from school on April 1, 1987. The Times was our local newspaper, and the sports page was the first thing I went for as soon as I got through the door each afternoon. In those days, the paper was delivered in the afternoon instead of the early morning, and it was the lifeblood for any young sports fan looking to keep up on the news. I would usually grab a quick glass of milk before settling down at our modest dining room table to read the sports page, but rumors had been swirling around Independence Elementary School all day and I needed to know if they were true. Sure enough, I flipped my trembling fingers through the sections of the paper until I found the Sports page. Right there, plain as day, in big bold letters was the proof that I had been seeking. I put the paper down on the table the read the headline over and over again in my mind, trying to grasp the concept and ramifications of what had occurred. My favorite team had made a stunning transaction, one that would change the face of the franchise for the next several years. I never actually read the article, I simply got up from the table, wiped away a tear that had formed on my cheek, and ran to my room. I left the newspaper open to the sports page on the table, with the headline blaring out for the entire world to see:
TONY PENA TRADED TO ST. LOUIS
As I sat in my room that night, I flipped through the pages of my Tony Pena baseball card collection and remembered all of the amazing things I had seen the Pirates star catcher do over the years. I remembered watching him sign autographs at Three Rivers Stadium before a game late in the previous season, jealous of the kids who had seats so close to the field that they could partake in the presence of such greatness. I remembered how he effortlessly threw the ball on a rope down to second base to nail a potential basestealer – without ever leaving his knees. I remembered how even when he knew he had hit the ball out of the park, he would still run the bases full speed. Tony Pena was more than a ballplayer to me, he was my Joe Dimaggio. He was the first hero I ever embraced from a sport that would become a lifetime obsession. As far as I was concerned, Tony Pena WAS the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As I settled down to go to sleep that night, my mind wondered about what would happen now. Who would the Pirates have catching this season? Where do we go from here?
The mind of a young baseball fan doesn’t care about the business end of the game. To a kid, the players on that field are larger than life, and I could only imagine that somewhere out there, Tony Pena was as upset about leaving Pittsburgh as I was that he was leaving. I imagined him packing his suitcase, leaving all of his black and gold uniforms in his closet before heading on the long journey to St. Louis to join Vince Coleman and Willie McGee with the Cardinals. As I drifted off to sleep that night under my Pirates comforter, laying my head on my Pirates pillowcases, I said one final goodbye by tucking his 1987 Topps baseball card under my pillow. That card would be with me for the next 30 years, a reminder to always appreciate the genuine, whimsical side of the game of baseball.
It was time to move forward for me, time to get to know my new Buccos. I was a kid without a favorite player, and that was a childhood felony if there ever was one.
Andy Van Slyke came to Pittsburgh as an unknown commodity from the St. Louis Cardinals. He had been a bit player on the Cardinals, a team who was considered a perennial contender in the Pirates division. As I searched through my “common” card boxes looking for his baseball cards, every one I found mentioned something about his throwing arm in the little “Did You Know” section under the statistics. It seemed the Pirates had acquired a pretty good player. He had a look to him, like he would have been a pretty cool guy. He was young and lanky, with a cocky smile that made you feel like he was going to jump through the cardboard and say “How you doing?”. I was sold on “Slick” as soon as I saw him play that season. He started out in rightfield for the Bucs, since Barry Bonds was still patrolling center field in those days. I could tell that he really enjoyed playing, and more than once that season he did something that made me smile. He always said funny things in post-game interviews, and was always laughing and joking around. Sure enough, I had found my new favorite player.
The Pirates of 1987 started out with many of the same players they had in 1986. The usual suspects like Don Robinson and Rick Reuschel, two pitchers who looked like they should have been working at the local deli instead of playing baseball. The venerable Johnny Ray was still playing second base, and guys like Bob Walk, Sid Bream, and R.J. Reynolds were still around. It felt good to still have these players, despite the fact that Tony Pena was now thrilling young fans in St. Louis. By the end of the season, most of the older guys would be gone. The final blow to the old guard was when Johnny Ray was traded to the California Angels late in the season. Amazingly enough, the Pirates played pretty good baseball that season despite the constant turnover and finished 80-82, finally out of the N.L. East basement. The bar had been set for a rebound season in 1988. Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, and pitchers Doug Drabek and John Smiley all looked like future superstars, and Manager Jim Leyland was very easy to relate to for a young fan. It was an exciting time to be a Pirates fan.
The team that was molded throughout 1986-1988 would end up being my favorite sports team of all time. As I hit junior high age in 1988, the Pirates were starting to get some national attention on ESPN and on my favorite show – “This Week in Baseball” – a Saturday staple in the Snedden household. The 1988 season would be my first experience with a Pirates team that was in a pennant race, and I cherished every minute of it. As the season wore on, the true villain of my baseball world was identified in the form of the dastardly New York Mets. Our young Buccos once again seemed to have a mental block when playing the Mets, and the summer of ’88 became a battle of good vs. evil for Pirates fans. The Mets were simply loaded with superstars, and seemed to be unstoppable at times. The pitching staff was led by Dwight Gooden,who routinely blew away Pirates batters with his 100 mph fastball and devastating curveball. The offense was even more dominating then the pitching staff, with Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson, Kevin McReynolds, Keith Hernandez, and Gary Carter leading the way. The Pirates played well all season and the Mets were the one team that constantly stood in their way. The New York Mets were the first team I truly hated, mainly because of the frustration they caused my Buccos. The Pirates valiantly fought the Mets all summer, but in the end the team from New York was just too far superior. The Pirates would finish in second place in the N.L. East, a full 15.0 games behind NLCS-bound New York. It was poetic justice when Orel Hershiser and the Dodgers knocked the Mets out of the playoffs en route to their historic World Series against the Oakland A’s. The Pirates had proved that they were a team on the rise, and Bucco Fever was in full effect in western Pennsylvania.
The 1988 season would firmly establish Andy Van Slyke as a major league superstar, and in my mind he was the best player in baseball that season. Not a game went by when he didn’t do something amazing on the field, from running down balls in the alleys to making fantastic over the shoulder catches. When the dust had settled, Van Slyke turned in one of the best overall seasons ever by a Pittsburgh Pirate, hitting 25 homeruns and stealing 30 bases. The young core of the new Pirates had many exciting players – Bonds, Bonilla, Jose Lind, Doug Drabek – but Andy Van Slyke was the guy who made it all work. It was fitting that he played centerfield, because he was the center of everything in my mind.
As the fall turned into winter that offseason, the Pirates began to be featured at various special events in the Pittsburgh area. One such event was the grand re-opening of a Pizza Hut not two miles from our Buchanan Avenue home. When news got out that there would be two Pirates signing autographs at the event, my father and I made plans to be there. The thing about autograph signings in those days was that you knew Pirates would be there – you just didn’t know WHICH Pirates. I dreamed about walking in and meeting Andy Van Slyke or maybe even Barry Bonds, who had really come into his own the previous season. The drive to Pizza Hut that Saturday only took ten minutes, but to me it seemed like hours. I was super excited at the chance to meet some Buccos, and in the back of my mind I imagined that once they met me – a super fan – they would immediately invite me to be part of the team. Maybe a ball boy? Perhaps I could even spell the Pirate Parrot as a young Parrot Jr.! The possibilities were endless in the mind of a 12 year old baseball crazed kid.
As it turned out, the Pirates didn’t exactly send superstars to rural Beaver County autograph signings. My big day became a tad less exciting when I walked into the newly remolded Pizza Hut to find the two players who would be signing autographs that day.
Bob Kipper and John Cangelosi.
That’s right, Bob “Round Tripper” Kipper and a backup outfielder who was barely taller than me.
As the excitement was slowly pulled from my anxious body by this news, I remembered that these were still actual Pirates. They might not have been Andy Van Slyke, but they put on the jersey all the same. I waited in line to get my autographs on their 1989 Topps baseball cards. Bob Kipper was a quiet guy, hardly looked up at anyone, and quickly signed his name before moving on to the next person in line. He didn’t seem happy to be there, which was disappointing. John Cangelosi was the complete opposite, however. He was smiling the whole time, offered to take pictures, signed his autograph, shook your hand, and thanked you – THANKED YOU – for being a fan. It was very cool to see that this guy, a major league baseball player, was happy to be at the Hopewell Township Pizza Hut on a Saturday afternoon to greet his fans. It was my first experience with meeting a player up close and personal, and “Cangy” endeared himself to me that day. Years later, when he was part of the Florida Marlins team that won the 1997 World Series, I was happy to see him jumping up and down on the field with his teammates. The five minutes he spent with me in the winter of 1989 had forever made me cheer for him. He was a guy who had to work three times as hard as anyone else to reach the level he was at. Not many 5’8″ baseball players make it to the major leagues, and even fewer last 14 years. It was inspirational to see that you didn’t have to be a great athlete to reach your dreams, that hard work and perseverance counted just as much. After meeting John Cangelosi, I became determined to give the game of baseball another shot. Even though I had failed miserably during my first Little League experience, I figured that if he could make it, just maybe I could too. When I got home that afternoon, I dug my glove and a ball out of the shed and starting playing baseball again. I ended up playing all through my youth, even in high school. While I was never very good, I never gave up. I had my moments, a big hit or a nice play, and every single time I thought back to John Cangelosi.
The 1989 season was supposed to be the coming out party for the new Pirates. After finishing in second place in ’88, the newspapers and magazines all seemed to think the Pirates had a chance to make it to the playoffs in ’89. They touted Barry Bonds as a future superstar, and of course they all wrote about Andy Van Slyke – the face of the Pirates. Unfortunately, all of their predictions ended up being wrong. The 1989 Pirates were a utter disappointment from the start. Everything that had gone right for the Bucs in 1988 went wrong in 1989. Injuries took first baseman Sid Bream and catcher Mike LaValliere out early in the campaign, and everyone else had bad seasons. One bright spot was our introduction to SS Jay Bell, who would instantly become a favorite of all female fans because of his youthful good looks. Bell wasn’t quite ready to be a starter, so the Pirates traded disappointing pitcher Mike Dunne to the Seattle Mariners for a shortstop named Rey Quinones. I remember my dad standing in the kitchen trying to sell me on Quinones as a great fielder, and sure enough in his first game with the Bucs he made a great diving stop and threw out the runner to save the game for the Pirates. It would turn out to be his swan song in the major leagues, as after the Pirates released him he never played again. It was my first experience with watching a player at the end of his career, fighting hard to try and keep playing the game he loved. It was easy to see how much he loved the game, and it was sad to watch him fumble around at the plate, unable to hit National League pitching. Rey Quinones may not be a guy that casual fans remember, but to me he was the player that defined the 1989 season for the Pirates. He played hard, but just wasn’t good enough.
As the 1989 season ended, I began to wonder if I would ever see my beloved Pirates win their division and make the playoffs. I had watched so much bad baseball, but the silver lining was the time I got to spend with my parents and sisters at Three Rivers Stadium that summer. We went to many games, and whenever we did it was always special. Going to Pirates games is a rite of passage for all kids growing up in the Steel City, and even though this will always be considered a “football town”, there is something that is just pure about baseball. So many of my best memories are of sitting in Three Rivers Stadium with my family, decked out in black and gold, cheering on our Pirates. Even though we rarely saw them emerge victorious, we always left with smiles on our faces. They are memories I will cherish for all time.
As for my Pirates and their quest to build a winning team, the next year would bring some amazing moments and further endear me to the team I loved. The Pirates were on the verge of something special, and 1990 would make Pittsburgh ground zero for exciting baseball. If I was a big fan during the lean years, I really turned it up a notch for something I had never seen – WINNING Pirates baseball.
Things were about to get very exciting in my baseball life, the Battlin’ Buccos were back.
NEXT TIME ON “Growing Up Buccos“ – The Pirates make a run at the National League East title, and a magical ride begins for a young Pirate fan.
If you missed the first installment of “Growing Up Buccos”, you can check it out with this easy link below!
Tags: Andy Van Slyke Barry Bonds Bob Kipper Bobby Bonilla Doug Drabek Growing Up Buccos Jeff Snedden Jim Leyland John Cangelosi John Smiley Pirates Blog Pittsburgh Pirates Pittsburgh Pirates Blog Tony Pena