At last, Opening Day is here! As the Pittsburgh Pirates prepare to embark on another journey this season, we will compare them to a team that will be celebrated all season long – the 1979 World Series Champion We Are Fam-a-lee Pirates.
“It’s too damn long, 40 years,” Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly said during a recent Q&A session at PNC Park, referring to the team’s most recent title while staking his claim to Master of the Obvious.
He should have stopped there.
“Everybody is committed to doing what we can to put a World Series championship team on the field,” he continued.
Hold your laughter, please.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Fam-a-lee, and because I’m a masochist, I decided to conduct a comparison between where the team stands heading into the 2019 season and where they stood heading into 1979. My findings surprised me. While some point to lack of belief, experience, or, you know, talent as the main obstacle to the Bucs reaching the Promised Land this year, I’ve concluded that the main hindrances are poorly placed reptiles and a missing cartoon mascot.
Bear with me.
My analysis is thoroughly unscientific, guided less by stats (let alone advanced ones) than unhinged emotion, unwarranted biases, unreliable memory and blindfolded dart throwing. In other words, I’ll take the same approach as the Pirates’ scouting department.
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The 1978 Bucs finished 88-73, 2nd in the NL East, a game-and-a-half behind the Phillies, while the 2018 team went 82-79 for 4th in the NL Central. I believe the pre-2019 Pittsburgh Pirates are better than their pre-’79 counterparts in centerfield, left field, and behind the plate. I’ll take Starling Marte over Omar Moreno and the Francisco Cervelli/Elias Diaz split over what would become an Ed Ott/Steve Nicosia lefty-righty platoon.
Left field is a bit tougher. Bill Robinson was a bopper, a true middle-of-the lineup threat; he drove in 80 in 1978 but hit just .246. Corey Dickerson hit .300 while driving home 55, but he was a Gold Glove winner while Robinson was somewhat of a liability in the field.
I believe the pre-2019 Pittsburgh Pirates are worse in right field and at first base – Dave Parker over Gregory Polanco and Willie Stargell over Josh Bell. But both of those should come as no surprise due to the caliber of player Stargell and Parker were.
Shortstop is a draw. Erik Gonzalez‘s career average, in a limited sample size, is a little worse than what Frank Tavares hit in 1978 (.263 versus .278). I’m guessing he’ll be at least even with the glove and have a little more power, being that Sister Sledge had more power than Tavares.
I’m calling second base and third base tossups, both leaning in favor of this year’s team. Adam Frazier is still unproven but hit 34 points better than did Rennie Stennet in ’78 in a similar number of at bats, not to mention seven more homers. Even after a two-year layoff, Jung Ho Kang promises to be at least as good as what the Pirates got out of the ‘78 Phil Garner (.261, 10 HR, 66 RBIs).
As for pitching, the ERA of the 2018 starting staff was nearly identical to that posted in ’78, and this year’s bullpen looks a little better to me (sorry Teke).
So how about that? Amazingly, the pre-2019 club is demonstrably or probably better than a champion in 6 of 9 positions and only worse at two. What makes these results more astounding is that, if I run the same comparison replacing the ’79 team with that of 1992, the last Bucs club to reach the NLCS, I wouldn’t choose a single player from this year’s squad with the exception, ironically, of Bell. First baseman Orlando Merced was lousy in ’92. If only the Pirates had held on to Sid Bream…oh never mind.
Knowing these results, I know that you’re dashing to buy World Series tickets, but please, everyone, refrain from stampeding.
You aren’t stampeding because, like me, you have difficulty envisioning this season’s team even making the playoffs. How is this possible, if it’s better than the champs? Why does the 2019 club feel so doomed, and how in the name of Duffy Dyer did the ’79 team go all the way?
For starters, multiple position players had career years or drastically outperformed expectations. Garner hit .293 and Robinson .302. Moreno went from .235 to .292 and stole 77 bases. Tim Foli, acquired from the Mets for Taveras in April and a career .251 batter, hit .291 and seemed to get a clutch knock every time he adjusted his glasses.
More importantly, the ’79 team had a snake in right field, a Cobra to be precise, while anyone searching for slithering reptiles on the 2019 Bucs needs to visit the front office. Parker didn’t win league MVP as he had the previous year, but he was arguably the most feared hitter in the game, not to mention a Gold Glove winner. The ’79 front office, meanwhile, traded for disgruntled former batting champion Bill Madlock in late June, and all Mad Dog did was spray ropes all over the park to the tune of a .328 batting average.
Can you see the current front office acquiring a former batting champion in his prime, disgruntled, gruntled, or otherwise? After all, that would throw off clubhouse chemistry. This management team is more likely to pull a Nicasio than a Madlock.
That hallowed ’79 club also had Wilver Dornell. I’m not sure who nicknamed him, but I like to believe that whoever did so grasped the double meaning in the moniker. Stargell was a father figure, sure, but he also had legendary Pop(s) in his bat.
Bell has played two full seasons. In Stargell’s third year, 1966, he hit .315 with 33 HRs and 102 RBIs. Bell has some snap and maybe even some crackle, but the pop the Pirates desperately need materialized in ’17 and turned into a soggy bowl of Rice Krispies last year. Polanco may never be The Cobra, but at this point I’d take a rattler. First base and right field are why Lumber and Lightning has become Plywood and Drizzle.
The 40th anniversary stone is a ruby, representing the idea that passion still burns. Pirate fans are oft-criticized for lacking in this regard, but that hasn’t been my experience, especially not the night of September 29, 1978.
The Bucs trailed first-place Philadelphia by three-and a half games heading into the season’s final series and needed to win all four of the set. The first two games were a Friday twi-night doubleheader. I sat in the upper deck a little past first base, and for the entire evening, Three Rivers Stadium was bananas. It was six hours of unchained, full-throated frenzy.
Ed Ott’s routine fly ball that inexplicably fell between Garry Maddox and Bake McBride to end Game 1 sent 45,000 into bedlam, and that was the warmup. My most vivid memory is of Dave Parker jumping up and down like a lunatic when Warren Brusstar balked him home in the bottom of the ninth to win Game 2, and the place exploded. To this day, I’ve never been a part of something so joyful, a moment of such pure elation. I was so hoarse that I could barely talk for two days. Randy Lerch ended the dream the next afternoon, but the intensity and excitement of that Friday night lingers as a reminder of what baseball in Pittsburgh could be.
Perhaps Polanco and Bell will morph into Parker and Stargell (no pressure, guys), and Pittsburgh will see more thrilling evenings like that one. Perhaps a 40th anniversary will inspire Coonelly and Bob Nutting to, at last, honor the pledge they made to the city. Improbable as the former might be, it seems more likely than the latter. A thriving marriage requires devotion and commitment from both sides. In Pittsburgh, one side has broken the trust, and Pirate fans face yet another passionless season.