Loose?" says First Baseman Bob Robertson in the Pirates' dressing room after contributing five hits to a 20-10 laugher over Atlanta on Saturday. "This is the loosest team I've ever been on."
"Unh-unh," says Pitcher Dock Ellis, who doesn't have on his sleek brown leather jacket yet but does have on his sleek brown hip-hugging leather pants. Ellis has just finished shouting, "I must be the sparkplug on this team. I stir up more stuff." Now he says, "Unh-unh. Asheville, '66."
"Naw," says Robertson.
"Asheville, '66," persists Ellis. "Nine-and-a-half-game lead and we lose by 9½. The manager's pressin' and we're bein' loose. We lose four in a row and we're still loose. Manager choked on us."
"Naw," says Robertson. "This one's looser." For one thing, Danny Murtaugh, who returned this spring as manager of the team he guided to a world championship in 1960, is not pressing. He does not give prolonged lectures on fine points of the game, as his predecessor, Larry Shepard, vexed his charges by doing. Murtaugh and his coaches mix right in with the players, who stayed in character last week by slipping loosely in and out of first place in the National League East.
"Loose club. Those are just newspaper words," says Murtaugh around a comfortable chaw of Beech-Nut. "A ball club ought to be happy. Or maybe 'happy' isn't the word. It ought not have any disgruntlements. This club doesn't have any disgruntlements."
But it has almost everything else. A gravedigging third baseman, for instance, in the person of Richie Hebner. He is not uptight about interment. "My father is supervisor of an old Jewish cemetery outside Roxbury, Mass. In a good winter I'll dig 50 graves. It's good work. I get 25 bucks a grave. If it has snowed, you just use a pick and shovel—scoop away the snow and the ground is good and soft. But if it hasn't snowed, the ground might be frozen two feet down. You have to use a pneumatic drill. One time last winter the ground was so hard and the weather was so cold I said, 'Ah, that's deep enough.' There's a law that a grave's got to be so deep, five feet or something, and the rabbi says, 'That's not deep enough.' 'Did you ever see one get out?' I asked him.
"I got lots of stories. One woman, they forgot to take off her wooden leg, and we had thrown several shovels of dirt on her already when somebody came up and said we had to get her back out so they could get her wooden leg. Another woman fell into the grave in the middle of the service. Did a header. 'Get her out, get her out,' the rabbi was yelling. I said, 'Naw, leave her in there and give her a discount.' The rabbi looked at my father and said, 'Who is this you've got digging graves?' "
The Pirates also have a Panamanian former Bible-school teacher as a catcher, although he doesn't look like either a Bible-school teacher or a catcher. Manny Sanguillen was a promising boxer before he finally took up baseball six years ago at the advanced age of 20, and now, with his shirt off, he looks a little like an expanded Emile Griffith. With his shirt on, and his catching gear, Sanguillen is all arms and legs—whereas catchers are usually mostly trunk. Sanguillen's arms are so long that it appears he could pull up his socks without bending over.
Henry Aaron says that Sanguillen has replaced Joe Torre as the talkingest catcher in baseball. Asked if he talks to the hitters to distract them, Sanguillen says, worriedly, "No. Does someone think I trying to mess them up? I wouldn't mess them up. It says in the Bible it is good to make lots of friends, and that way I may bring people into the church. Do they think I trying to mess them up?"
Sanguillen has a Spanish translation of Billy Graham's World Aflame in his locker and he has discussed it with Matty Alou, Jose Pagan and Roberto Clemente. "Before I was a Christian I was on motorcycles," he says, "like Marlon Brando. Today some of my friends back there, they are crazy. Yes."
Sanguillen hit .303 last year and is hitting .305 this year. He knows he needs to correct his tendency to swing at anything thrown to him, but he is no more uptight about free-swinging than he is about Christianity. He goes after the first pitch so often, he explains, with a big smile, "because it make me feel good."
The Pirates are even relaxed about race. Freddie Patek is a reserve infielder, white and 5'4" tall, but in the course of a locker room conversation the other day he hurled what is generally considered to be a classic racial slur at Pitcher Bob Veale, who is black and 6'6", and Veale did not appear to be disgruntled at all. So, heady, Patek called after rookie Outfielder John Jeter that the same thing applied to him. Of course, Patek gets his occasionally. Apparently at random, when the spirit moves him, Sanguillen will just swoop down on Patek with his arms and pick him up for idle exercise. The Pirates are always grabbing each other and picking each other up off the ground.
Steve Blass is one of the two regular Pirate starters who have been sidelined with arm trouble. (Bob Moose, with something known as a dislocated nerve, is the other one.) Blass contributed to a typical mock-angry racial argument by alternately screaming "now wait a minute" and having the breath squeezed out of him by Veale. For variety, Blass then read to his assembled teammates from the amusements guide of a local newspaper: "Hey, here's an interesting comment from Mrs. Aubrey Woods of Manhattan. She says, 'I am happy Dinah Shore is returning with a daily talk show, because I sometimes enjoy seeing the various leading stars voice their opinions to many subjects.' "
Blass is, he says, not only the first major-leaguer from Falls Village, Conn., he is "the only person ever to leave Falls Village, Conn." On a team flight last week he tucked in his tie so that only a very short piece of it was showing. Then he told the stewardesses, "I am the one in the short tie."
So Blass is loose, but he is bespectacled and Ivyish in dress. On the other hand, Willie Stargell, Dave Cash, Ellis and sometimes Veale wear such things as see-through shirts, red jersey-knit outfits, planter-style straw hats, huge floppy caps and glistening bell-bottom white suits. Murtaugh, who affects the sort of conservative wear appropriate to a 5'9" 52-year-old, bay-windowed Irishman, says: "Young people have to wear the clothes that are in style. In my day we had the zoot suits and the pegged trousers, and I don't guess the older people approved of all that."
Then there are the new Pittsburgh uniforms. Of a nylon and cotton material, knit and nearly formfitting, they have been compared to "ski pants, only all over" and to long Johns. The shirt is a pullover and the pants have an elastic band, a drawstring and no fly. "It's like taking off a girdle," says one Pirate. They do not flatter a fat man. The Pirates like them.
The new uniforms were first worn on July 16, which was the night 48,846 fans showed up to see Pittsburgh's new Three Rivers Stadium open. The stadium lacks access roads and parking, so that patrons have to come in by foot, boat or bus from at least a half a mile away. When it rains, great lakes accumulate in the dirt fields around the stadium. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of New Guinea—you can get dust in your eye and mud on your feet at the same time.
The original estimate of the stadium's cost was $28 million, but so far it has cost $36 million plus $26 million for land redevelopment in the area. Political shenanigans dumped the whole cost of the stadium on residents of Pittsburgh exempting the suburbanites of surrounding Allegheny County. But after nine games in the new stadium the Pirates have drawn an average of 29,000 and total attendance is up 150,000 compared to corresponding dates of last year.
One of those nine games was Roberto Clemente Night, which drew 43,290 people. For the occasion Clemente made a great sitting-down catch to go with a great skidding-on-his-knees catch, and ex-Pirate Manager Harry Walker said, "I have never seen a greater player than Roberto Clemente." Which isn't news. News would be Harry Walker saying, "I have seen a greater player than Roberto Clemente," or Roberto Clemente saying, "I have never seen a greater player than Harry Walker." The public at large has gotten used to Clemente. He is hitting .356 and fielding and throwing as well as he ever has, which is to say about as well as anyone ever has. But, then, that is the same old story, too.
So are Clemente's injuries. Having got 'em, he flaunts 'em—until, of course, somebody accuses him of being a hypochondriac. He has a favorite St. Louis chiropractic clinic now and carries a chart showing where chiropractors trained by that clinic can be found all over the country. Also, he has an interesting new circulatory theory. Clemente has been out of action lately as a result of a pitch that hit his wrist, and last Saturday he was telling Tony Bartirome, the team trainer, that the bad blood seemed at last to have left the painfully bruised and swollen area: "I felt a pain in my stomach, like poison there, you know? I think that was the blood running down out of my wrist."
However much trouble his own vertebrae may give him, Clemente is part of the backbone of the club, with 29-year-old Willie Stargell, who has been sitting out some games but still leads the team in home runs and RBIs, and 33-year-old Bill Mazeroski. Maz is hitting .226 as compared to .323 for his 22-year-old backup man Cash. But as Cash himself says, "When Maz can play, he's got to be in there, I know that."
In Cincinnati last week Mazeroski, covering first on a bunt play, saved a game by diving all the way into the coaching box to stop a wild throw. "He's got some kind of instinct that regular people don't have," says Red Second Baseman Tommy Helms. "He's always been my hero."
Mazeroski has long been especially admired among second basemen for his mastery of the double-play pivot. The secret is, he says, "I plant my right foot before I catch the ball. It saves a half-step. Now I've taught it to Helms and Joe Morgan in Houston, and Cash, but it used to be that I was the only second baseman who did it."
Mazeroski is less restrained about tobacco-chewing on artificial turf than his manager is. "I don't spit on it," says Murtaugh. "It stains it. I look for a spot of dirt. There's plenty of spots to spit in."
"It don't hurt it," says Mazeroski.
The Pirates have not always been on top of their game this year. For some time they were fourth in the division. On the bases they once suffered a double play on two straight singles (both Alou and Hebner were trapped off base on the second single) and once failed to score, with none out, on two hits and two Dodger throwing errors.
In the field, all this happened during one loss to the Reds: Clemente fell down chasing a two-out drive to let in two runs, Stargell dropped one fly ball twice, Alou caught a liner with his thigh for another run, and a wild pitch by Joe Gibbon let in two runs when the batter pointed the wrong way as the friendly Sanguillen tried to locate the ball.
"We've gone through the cycle now," said Murtaugh earlier in the season. "Lousy hitting, lousy fielding, lousy pitching. Hitting is so bad I don't know who to sit down." As the year has worn on, though, the hitting has blossomed, with solid young line-drivers appearing all over the lineup. The pitching has improved in less predictable ways.
For instance, the Pirates have a reliever, Orlando Pena, 35, who started the season as Kansas City's batting-practice pitcher. "Clemente saw me and said, 'What you doin'?' I said I didn't want to go down to Omaha so I'm pitching batting practice and learning how to scout. He told the Pirates they ought to pick me up, so they did."
The hero of the bullpen has been Dave Giusti, who is 8-2 with 19 saves this year as a short reliever. But Pena, too, has been consistently effective, and the first two fingers of his right hand are a point of interest worth having on any ball club. Pena has habitually forced those two fingers apart while sitting on the bench, so that now there is twice as great a space between them as between the same two fingers on his other hand. That way he can grip his fork ball better.
"I used to throw a spitball," he confesses, "but now you have to leave the circle of the mound to wet your fingers. By the time you can get to the rubber they dry off."
Pena has more peace of mind this season, since he finally managed, after 8½ years, to get his father, sister and two nephews out of Cuba. During this whole time his father had obtained only two pairs of shoes, a statistic which may be compared favorably only to the fact that, until recently, Pena had not won a major league game since 1966. In his heyday, Pena recalls with pride, a Spanish-language newspaper once printed a detailed table showing that he had given up fewer home runs to Mickey Mantle than any other Cuban pitcher.
With Giusti and Pena in the bullpen, Murtaugh has patched up his tattered rotation with fill-in starters. Bruce Del Canton, 28, known as "Lurch," did not start pitching professionally until he was 24, perhaps because it was not until that age that he started slimming down to 195 pounds, after having held steady for some time at 258. Jim Nelson, another fill-in starter, ate watermelon and drank beer after pitching a surprise shutout, and he prepared for his last start by going to see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
To each Pirate, his own way of loosening up. But the clubhouse boys of Montreal had better watch out for one thing the Pirates do for relaxation as a group. It was before one of the games last weekend in Atlanta that Trainer Bartirome began to lay bets that he could pick up three men at once.
"Hundred dollars," he was saying. "I can pick up any two men you pick, plus a third one I pick, as long as I can put the lightest guy in the middle."
"Naw, you got a bad back," somebody said.
"Hundred dollars, I mean it."
Finally, after a great deal of arguing and murmuring back and forth, Bartirome directed the two heavyweights, Stargell and Ellis, to lock their arms and legs securely around the clubhouse boy's. Player Rep Giusti got down close to the floor to judge whether all three would indeed clear it together.
"All right." said Bartirome, "when I say strain, you strain. Strain."
And with that he unzipped the completely immobilized clubhouse boy's trousers, and in a trice several Pirates had filled them to overflowing with shaving cream and soft drinks.
"Oh!" shouted an overjoyed Moose. "We got to do that in Montreal! That French boy who can't speak English, he'll go 'wallawallawalla....' He won't know what to say."
So this is a warning to the French boy in Montreal. Everybody else in the league will just have to hang loose, and hope for possible disgruntlements.