The 1990 Major League Baseball season started out like every other season I had experienced in my brief career as a super fan. The Pirates were projected to be average, at best. Evidently, the offseason signings of such powerhouse stars as Walt Terrell, Ted Power, Don Slaught, and Wally Backman did little to convince the experts that our Buccos could take the next step in their slow development as a National League contender. On paper, the Pirates were more or less the same team that had disappointed fans a year earlier. When the Pirates opened up the season by wiping the field with the hated New York Mets as Shea Stadium 12-3, it marked the beginning of a remarkable baseball renaissance in the Steel City. The roster that the Bucs had been building over the past five years came together all at once, with virtually everyone contributing to the success. Barry Bonds was beginning to carve out his name among the baseball elite, Bobby Bonilla became a certified masher in the middle of the lineup, Doug Drabek crafted a Cy Young-level season, and unsung heroes were coming up big every single game. Journeyman pitcher Neal Heaton started the season on a tear, and ended up in the All Star Game for the only time in his 12-year career. Veteran pitcher Bob Walk was a steady source of leadership and young players such as Jay Bell and Jeff King became household names in the city. One of the best benches in modern-day baseball history kept the Pirates rolling during the long dogs days of summer.
It was the real life version of the the movie “Major League”. A team of has-beens and never-will be’s turned the baseball world upside down. By the time the dust had settled, a team that many had predicted would finish dead last in the N.L. East was celebrating on the sun-drenched green carpet infield of old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, on their way to the first Pirates NLCS appearance since 1979. The feeling of seeing my players jumping all over each other with Lanny Frattare yelling “The Bucs have won the National League East!” was like nothing I had ever experienced. I taped the game that day on our family VCR, complete with commercials and KBL (the old Pittsburgh sports channel) adverts. That video tape would be replayed so many time by me that by the time I reached high school, it was no longer watchable. My boys had done it, they were heading to the playoffs.
While the 1990 Pirates were contenders from day one, they did need a little bit of help along the way. In one of the best Pirates mid-season trades of all time, the Bucs sent RP Scott Ruskin (owner of the best curveball I had ever seen at the time), IF Willie Greene, and a player to be named later – yep, Moises Alou – to the Montreal Expos for a grizzled veteran starting pitcher. That pitcher was Zane Smith, a talented left-handed pitcher with a face that could scare the gills off a trout. Zane Smith was amazing for the Pirates, but let’s just say that the teenage girls of Pittsburgh weren’t hanging his poster up on their wall next to the New Kids on the Block. In one of the best single-game pitching performances you will ever see, Smith helped the Pirates sweep the Mets in a doubleheader at Three Rivers Stadium by throwing a one-hit shutout in game one. The Pirates started that day up a 1/2 game on the Mets in the division, and went home that night up 2 1/2 games, a humbling experience for the Mets – who had always seemed to get the upper hand on the Pirates before that season. While many fans remember the Bonds, Bonilla, and Drabeks of those early ’90s Pirates teams, I will always remember Zane Smith – the bucktoothed, mullet haired southpaw who led us to the promise land.
Over the next three seasons, Pirates baseball hit its highest level of success in over a decade. The Bucs won three straight N.L. East titles – one of them in 1991 with me in the stands – and were arguably the best team in baseball from 1990-1992. Many players came and went over that time span, but it always came back to Andy Van Slyke. Besides his unbelievable skills in the outfield, Van Slyke had another fantastic offensive season in 1992, hitting .324 and driving in 89 runs. He finished fourth in the NL MVP voting, and took home his fifth straight Golden Glove and second Silver Slugger award. Van Slyke was the most popular player in Pittsburgh, and I was his biggest fan. With all of the star power the Pirates had,. it was easy to overlook the role players who once again were pivotal in the Bucs three-season run. Players like Cecil Espy, Gary Varsho, Gary Redus, and Lloyd McClendon all had magical moments in the black and gold over their time here and each carved out a cult following. The Pirates were truly a team for the “every man”, and in a city with more “every men” than most, the team was adored and fans packed Three Rivers Stadium to watch them play. For me, the entire 1990-1992 run was like a dream. Although the Pirates were defeated by the “Nasty Boys” Cincinnati Reds in the 1990 NLCS and the upstart Atlanta Braves in the 1991 NLCS, it felt like just a matter of time until this team broke the glass ceiling and won the World Series.
It never happened.
We all remember the name Francisco Cabrera, and we all remember Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. It was that game that broke the hearts of millions of fans just like me. After Sid Bream crossed the plate that night, I broke down to my mother and cried as she consoled me. I knew it was over, that this was the final chance my team would have at the World Series they so deserved. I’ll never forget that night, laying in my bed, tears in my eyes, as I finally accepted the reality of what had occurred. The Pirates were about to embark on some lean years – that we knew for sure. Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek would be gone this winter, pulled away from Pittsburgh by promises of riches in San Francisco and Houston. The Bucs had a trio of young players that they would be counting on to keep the team afloat in 1993. Al Martin, Carlos Garcia, and Kevin Young were supposed to be the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team would also still have long-time Buccos Jeff King, Jay Bell, Orlando Merced, and of course Andy Van Slyke. On paper, it seemed like the Pirates may still have a shot at a fourth N.L. East title in 1993 if everything came together just right.
Unfortunately, things didn’t come together. The pitching staff, decimated by the losses of Doug Drabek and John Smiley, was no longer able to keep the Bucs in games while the younger players figured out the major leagues. The breakout star of 1992, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, came crashing back down to Earth in 1993. Young starters Steve Cooke and Paul Wagner were simply not ready to fill the void left by Drabek and Smiley. Denny Neagle, acquired in the Smiley trade, was on the verge of becoming a good major league pitcher, but in 1993 he was awful in limited duty. The bottom fell out on many of the stars of the 1990-1992 run, including catcher Mike LaValliere, who was injured early in the season and never played another game for the Pirates. It was the end of an era, and looking back I don’t think any of us could have imagined the perils that lay ahead for one of baseballs longest tenured franchises. The Pittsburgh Pirates were about to embark on a dark journey that would almost take them from the city they had called home for over 100 years.
By the time the 1993 season had ended, the Bucs finished 75-87, and their reign of terror in the National League East was officially over. For me, the Pirates were a part of my childhood that I could never let go of, no matter how hard I tried. The black and gold was in my blood for good, and as I headed into my formative high school years, baseball may not have been my top priority – but it was always in my heart. The players from those teams would continue to be my heroes everytime I took the baseball field in my high school career, a constant reminder that reality always trumps reputation, and sometimes the magical baseball gods are fickle beings, making you feel the agony of defeat many times before you were to have a small taste of victory. I had learned many life lessons from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and as I got older and the team begin their downward spiral into obscurity, I continued to be the fan that I learned to be from my grandfather and my father. Real fans don’t abandon their teams when the going gets tough. They persevere, they honor their commitment to the organization they love.
Baseball is a game that teaches many life lessons, and the ones I learned while growing up as a Pirates fan will be with me until the day I die. My loyalty is never in question, and I always remember that even if today is a bad day, tomorrow always brings the promise of a 0-0 score. It is up to me to make sure I win the game.
As I sit here today, a 34-year old lifetime fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, I now have the opportunity to use my skills to enhance the baseball experience for younger fans through the art of writing. That is the difference between myself and the folks that write here at Rum Bunter, and the main stream media outlets you find across the internet or in your local papers. We are fans, FIRST. We may pride ourselves as journalists, but deep down we all have the same story. We love the Pittsburgh Pirates.
We all spent our childhoods “Growing Up Buccos”.
You can read the full three-part series of “Growing Up Buccos: Memories of a Pirated Childhood” exclusively here at rumbunter.com by using the links below!
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Topics: Andy Van Slyke, Atlanta Braves, Barry Bonds, Bob Walk, Bobby Bonilla, Cecil Espy, Cincinnati Reds, Doug Drabek, Gary Varsho, Growing Up Buccos, Jeff Snedden, Jim Leyland, John Smiley, Lanny Frattare, Lloyd McClendon, Moises Alou, Pirates Blog, Pittsburgh Pirates, Pittsburgh Pirates Blog, Randy Tomlin, Tim Wakefield, Zane Smith