Looking back on the slow start of the 1979 Pirates

Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s a long season, and we baseball fans know how long a 162-game season can drag. At the same time, it doesn’t take a lot for us to get fired up about our favorite team early in the year.

A three-game losing streak in April is enough to cause panic. Blowing a ninth-inning lead on a Sunday in the first week of May creates a rise in blood pressure. It is easy to forget how long a baseball season is. A perfect example of a franchise that started slow, only to turn things around is the last team to win a World Series in Pittsburgh.

Every Pirates fan knows how the 1979 season ended. Pittsburgh won the National League, then fell behind three-games-to-one to Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles in the fall classic. The Bucs clawed back to win the series in seven games on the back of the great Willie Stargell. That we know. But there are some things that most casual fans would not know, and that is that in that historic season, the Pirates did not exactly dominate from the get-go.

Coming into 79′, the Philidelphia Phillies were on a roll.

Philly averaged 95.5 wins on it’s way to winning division titles in 1977 and 78′ and had bolstered its roster even further before the 1979 season when they signed Pete Rose.

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Rose was well on his way to becoming the hit king, and he had never been hotter. In 1978, Rose set an NL record that has yet to be topped, hitting in 44 consecutive games and at least sniffing Joe DiMaggio’s seemingly permanent mark.

So, Philly had been the kings of the NL East two years running and had made a big splash in the offseason to ensure a repeat. Although the Pirates were not necessarily expected to take down Philly, there was some hope. In ’78, the Pirates nearly erased a large division deficit late in the season to fall just two games short of Philly for the NL East crown. The Bucs also had plenty of weapons in their arsenal.

Coming back in ’79 for Pittsburgh was the defending NL MVP, right fielder Dave Parker. At first, base was the great Stargell. In centerfield, there was the  base stealing specialist Omar Moreno and a shortstop was Phil Garner. The Pirates rotation consisted of young stud John Candelaria and future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. The bullpen, among the greatest in club history, was anchored by Kent Tekulve and Grant Jackson.

1978 is a unique season in Pirates history. After 112 games, the Bucs stood at 51-61, 11 games behind Philly. It looked like this would turn into a lost season. But the Bucs went a remarkable 37-12 the rest of the way and almost pulled out what would have been one of the more remarkable comebacks in baseball history. So, the mindset going into 1979 was to start fast and avoid having to play catch-up at the end. Unfortunately, the Bucs did not get off to an ideal start.

The season began on April 6 against the Montreal Expos at Three Rivers Stadium. Despite seven strong innings from Blyleven, the Bucs fell 3-2 and went on to lose two of three in the opening series. Next up was a trip to Veterans Stadium for a two-game set with the hated Phillies. The Pirates would drop both and fall to 1-4 on the young season.

Pittsburgh would bounce back with a three-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals at Three Rivers. The slump would resume, however, as Pittsburgh would lose its next five games- two to the Phillies and three to the Houston Astros, to fall to 4-9. Pittsburgh would go 3-4 over the rest of April. So after one month of play, the Bucs were  7-11, 6 and 1/2 games behind the Phillies in the East.

May started out with a series split with the Atlanta Braves. After that, the Bucs dropped two of three to the Cardinals at old Busch Stadium. The Pirates then went a combined 3-3 against the Braves and Reds, and after a 3-0 loss to the New York Mets on May 15 at Three Rivers, the Bucs had a record of 12-18, well behind the 22-10-1 Phillies.

In baseball, little things can make the biggest impact. An excellent example of this happened that may.  Here, the Pirates acquired a former number one overall draft choice who had not panned out. That man was Tim Foli.

The Pirates picked up Foli from the New York Mets in exchange for outfielder Frank Tavares. As former play-by-play man Lanny Frattare recalls, manager Chuck Tanner announced the transaction in an unusual manner.

“We were in Houston, Texas when [the trade] happened and there was a terrific storm that had come through Houston that night,” said Frattare in an interview for Rum Bunter. “What I remember about it was that Chuck Tanner held a press conference in his suite, and there were no lights in the hotel, so we sat around with candles burning.”

For Frattare, the acquisition of Foli gave the Pirates what every winning team needed, which was a dependable shortstop.

“Every year the Pirates have won world championships, they have had solid shortstops,” said Frattare. “[Dick] Groat for the 60 team, Jackie Hernandez in 71, Foli and then the early years of Jim Leyland with Jay Bell. Everybody talks in baseball about pitching and defense. What they mean when they refer to defense is that guys will make those consistent plays and the plays that need to be made on a regular basis.”

The other significant transaction came in June. Bill Madlock, although a two-time batting champion, was unhappy as a San Fransico Giant, and thus, the second big piece to the puzzle was added in exchange for Fred Breining, Al Holland and Ed Whitson

Madlock would go on to hit .328 the rest of the way, helping the Pirates to turn things around and, eventually, reach the promised land.

We all know how the story ends. The Bucs caught fire, winning 98 games and fighting off the scrappy Expos to win the East, while the Phillies finished a disappointing 4th in the division. Pittsburgh went on to sweep the NL West champion Reds in the playoffs, before winning its fifth world championship in that fantastic series with the Orioles.

Now, I am not trying to suggest that 2017 will have a similar ending. This year’s Pirates team does not appear to have the same offensive punch as the “Lumber Company” of old. But there are some similarities, particularly within Pittsburgh’s division foes.

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The Philadelphia Phillies coming into 1979 were not unlike the Chicago Cubs coming into 2017. Both teams were thought to be dominant coming into the season. Both teams had World Series potential.

The Cubs proved that in 2016 as the Phillies would in 1980. While I’m not suggesting that the Cubs will experience a dropoff in the division, although the first month of the season has suggested that, what I am trying to get at here is that in sports, it is very hard for teams to stay consistent for so long.

“There is some carry-over from one year to the next year, but then again, how many teams repeat year after year?” Frattare said.

Yes,  it is fun to whine and complain and get excited over baseball at any time of the year. But the end of the day, the game is not a 100 Meter Dash, but rather a marathon, with runners changing position over the length of the race. The 1979 Pirates are proof of this.

“Considering how long this game of baseball has been a part of our lives, there are some teams that start slowly and pick it up,” said Frattare. That’s part of the fun of watching baseball.”