In their locker room in picturesque new Three Rivers (that is, the Allegheny, the Ohio and the Monongahela) Stadium, the Pittsburgh Pirates were enjoying themselves. Manny Sanguillen, the hottest-hitting long-armed Panamanian catcher in baseball, yelled at Dave Giusti, perhaps the best reliever in baseball, "Hey, you too old to throw a fassball inside," and then he roared with laughter.
Dock Ellis, the hottest-talking, hottest winning pitcher in the National League, explained that his one-year-old daugher's name, Shangaleza Talwanga, meant "everything black is beautiful" in Swahili. Manager Danny Murtaugh, who looks like a cross between a bulldog and Barry Fitzgerald, sat in his office rocking chair, quietly rocking and chewing. Reserve Infielder Jose Pagan walked up to All-Star Leftfielder Willie Stargell (see cover) and hit him five or six good solid blows to the chest.
"O.K.," Pagan announced. "I'm ready. I feel good."
Stargell looked down on his little teammate and agreed. "You do," he said. And not just Pagan. Almost all the Pirates were feeling good and going good. As they loosened up last week for the Dodgers, the Bucs had grounds for team euphoria. They had won 11 in a row and were leading the National League East by 11½ games, with a winning percentage of .667, best in the majors.
They were at home at Three Rivers (that is, at the Monongahela, the Allegheny and the Ohio) where their record for the year was a cozy 36-13. They were batting .284—14 points higher than the fabled 1970 Big Red Machine had—and they were leading both leagues in home runs.
Their ace pitcher, Ellis (the only Pirate who wears a fuzzy—or as he prefers to call it, a "velvetized"—batting helmet) was riding a personal winning streak of 13.
Their batting bulwark, Stargell (the only Pirate whose number is marked on everything—even his shower shoes—in a Roman numeral) was leading baseball with 31 home runs and 88 RBIs, and their bullpen bulwark, Giusti, had a similarly staggering total of 19 saves.
Their Hall of Fame rightfielder, Roberto Clemente, was hitting around .340, as usual, and a couple of weeks before in Houston he had made a catch about which Astro Manager Harry Walker declared, "He took it full flight and hit the wall wide open. It was the best I've ever seen."
They owned an offensive depth that would bring honor to a nuclear submarine. The Pirates' fourth outfielder, Gene Clines, had exactly the same lifetime batting average (covering 31 games in '70 and 52 in '71) as Ty Cobb, and their fill-in second baseman was old Bill Mazeroski—hitting for a better average than when he was a perennial All-Star. Due back soon from Marine camp was Dave Cash, batting .322 and already established, at age 23, as Mazeroski's worthy successor. Altogether, with seven American blacks, six Latins and a white minority which included at least one Polish American, one Texas American and two redheads, the Pirates had perhaps the richest assortment of ethnic strains ever to heap threats, obloquy and even full nelsons upon one another, day after day, in active harmony at Three Rivers—that is, at the Ohio, the Monongahela and the Allegheny.
Then, that night against the Dodgers, the Pirates lost a baseball game.
Afterward the clubhouse lay silent as a tomb. "Either you do," intoned Stargell at his locker, "or you don't." After a long moment, he added, "The bitter with the sweet."
It seemed an extreme reaction to one defeat in 12 games, but as Starter Steve Blass (now 11-4)—who hadn't even played in the loss—explained the next day when some sparkle had returned to the atmosphere, "Well, we lost. We didn't know how to react. I didn't know what to say to my wife."
Then the Pirates dropped two out of three to the Giants, their probable opponents in the National League playoffs in October. After the first of those defeats Stargell sat with his 4-year-old son Wilver Jr., called Son-Son, in his lap and asked him if he was ready for the forthcoming father-and-son game.
"Yes," smiled Son-Son.
"Kin you pole it?" asked Stargell.
"Yes," smiled Son-Son.
Stargell wasn't smiling. He had struck out three times and his knees were very bad. Sitting disconsolately next to him was Giusti. After striking out Willie Mays with the bases loaded the night before, Giusti had suggested that Mays couldn't hit a good fastball anymore. Then, this night he had walked Mays in the ninth with the bases loaded on an overly discreet fastball, and followed that by giving up a grand-slam homer to Willie McCovey. Sanguillen wasn't reviling Giusti now. Nobody was saying anything to him, or to anybody—except Stargell to Son-Son. It was awful.
Even at such a moment it was hard to feel sorry for the Pirates. And, as a matter of fact, they promptly rebounded from the Giant series by taking two straight and getting a weekend split in San Diego to maintain an overpowering division lead over Chicago and St. Louis. Stargeli brought his home-run total to 32. The Pirates' don'ts and their bitters look pale in comparison with their dos and their sweets.
Take the prime case of Stargell. His knees are puffy, pitted and dumpy looking, and the ravaged cartilages in them apparently make it an ordeal for him to play. He does not like to talk about the problem because, as he says, "I didn't make any excuses when I was having a terrible season and I'm not going to make any now."
Stargell has always had troubles with his knees. One was operated on after the 1964 season, when he was only 23, and the other the next year. At least one of them may have to be cut into again this winter. The other day, Stargell glanced across at Clines and said: "I wish I had just one of his legs." But since Clines is a slim sprinter some five inches shorter than the 6'2½" Stargell, such an arrangement would require Stargell to play left field at a 45-degree angle. And however ruefully he may regard his pins, Stargell should not trade the rest of himself for anything.
He has an enormous trunk that seems to swell visibly in the batting box as he paws in the dirt with his front foot in a pent-up way, like a man getting ready to lift something tremendous or stop a charge. As he waits, Stargell swings his bat around and around in a plane perpendicular to the plate, so that it looks like a propeller taking its first few spins. Then: Woomp!
Stargell is one of two men in memory to hit a ball over the right-center field wall in old Forbes Field at the 436-foot mark. Stargell's went an estimated 542 feet. In the 61½ years big-league ball was played in Forbes Field, 18 home runs were hit over its right-field roof; Stargell hit seven of them. Four balls have been hit into the upper deck of Three Rivers since the Pirates moved in last July, three of these to right field and all three by Stargell.
The matter of ball parks—which ones to hit in or out of—is of considerable significance. In Stargell's 10-year career he has never hit more than 33 home runs. That is primarily because of Forbes Field.
Forbes Field represented the thinking of Barney Dreyfuss, the Pirates' first president, who hated, even in the deadball era, anything resembling a cheap homer. Forbes Field had a small homer pocket in the right-field corner, but a ball hit directly over the head of a base runner with a modest lead off first had to travel 375 feet to reach the fence; the right-center power alley was 408 feet; the left-center alley was 457 feet. Accordingly, no Pittsburgh team has led the league in home runs since 1903, which was before Forbes Field. Occasionally some observer would wonder why, since Forbes was such a bad place to hit home runs in, no one ever pitched a no-hitter there. But the more spacious the park, the more room there is for singles, doubles and triples to fall in between fielders—and the single-double-and-triple hitter is what Pittsburgh has specialized in, from Honus Wagner through Paul and Lloyd Waner and Kiki Cuyler to Dick Groat, Matty Alou and Clemente.
The main difference between the Pirates who eked out a division title last year and the Pirates who are outmuscling all of baseball now is that not only are the line-drive hitters like Clemente, Cash, Sanguillen, Al Oliver and Clines still flourishing, but Stargell is heading toward 50-plus homers. Third Baseman Richie Hebner and First Baseman Bob Robertson (who reached Three Rivers' left-field upper deck) have good shots at 30 and almost anyone in the lineup is a feasible threat to hit one out. Three Rivers' fences are at nice, standard 340-, 385- and 410-foot distances.
In 1969 Stargell's wife Dolores kept track of her husband's long drives at Forbes Field and figured out that in the new stadium (then under construction) he would have hit 52 instead of 29 for the year. Last year Stargell had four in Forbes Field, nine in Three Rivers and 18 on the road. This year he already has 18 at home.
Three Rivers isn't purely sweet for Stargell, however, because the artificial turf is hard on his legs. The harder outfield surface is more tiring to stand and run around on, and balls take quick, skidding bounces on the Tartan Turf that require knee-wrenching quick cuts of Stargell, who is a conscientious defensive craftsman.
The bitter with the sweet. Even at Stargell's All-Pro fried chicken parlor, in Pittsburgh's ghetto Hill section, a Stargell homer does not necessarily trigger the fountain of free chicken and merrymaking of popular belief. Stargell's place is attractive and serves good food, and it makes good its promise to serve free to anyone present when the radio announces a Stargell blast, but a counterman on duty recently said, "Last time there was one guy in here drinking an orange Slush, and so many junkies outside in the street that it looked like a parade, and junkies aren't buying any chicken. Then Stargell hits one, word gets out and then they all want to come piling in. Uh-uh. I paid for that Slush and put it down for promotion, and that's all. Another time there was a drunk in here ordered $1.48 worth of chicken, and I gave him his change, and Stargell hit one. I told the guy to give me the two cents back and the chicken was free, and he didn't want to do it. He didn't know what was going on. I told him, 'Listen, just gimme the two cents back, I'm trying to do you a favor.' Finally he did and I gave him his $1.50 back and he said, 'Well, good. That was my last money. Now I can go buy a drink.' "
Meanwhile, the Pirates are keeping things in perspective, too. Asked what the difference is between his pitching this year and last, Dock Ellis says only, "Runs. Runs." Then he also offers a complaint: "Whenever I say something, it comes out in the papers that I made a complaint." Ellis' most famous assertion—which turned out to be mistaken—was that he would not start in the All-Star Game against Vida Blue because they were both black. More recently he made headlines by observing that the National League was using two different kinds of baseballs, one of which is "too fat" for his hand.
Asked what he is doing differently this year, Steve Blass says, "I find it hard to take it all too seriously. I'm not a heart surgeon. If I'm not throwing well I keep on throwing, and if I am throwing well, I enjoy it. This year I'm throwing well. And we're scoring a lot of runs. Our trainer, Tony Bartirome, is having a great year although he finished sixth in the All-Star balloting...."
"This ball club," says Manny Sanguillen, "it makes no difference whether we're in third place or first, we the same. We keep each other happy. Me—I'm happy all the time. I think I was happy when I was born. Hey Robertson—I hate to tell you, but you don't have power."
Ellis is listening to some loud music whose lyrics, sung along by Ellis, consist largely of "funky...oh yeah." Suddenly the volume goes down. Ellis complains, and asks whose idea that was. Someone points to Clemente. Clemente, the ranking superstar of the club. Clemente, who declares that official scorers do not want him to win a batting championship. Clemente, whom no one used to be able to kid.
"Did you notice how the room went silent?" whoops Ellis. And he breaks into his Clemente imitation. Hobbling, twitching his neck and saying in a Latin accent, "Oh, I not like I used to be. I a little bit of an old man now."
"Did you see Clemente slide lass night?" yells Sanguillen, flying halfway across the room in an imitation of that slide, and then freezing on the floor. "I want to go help him up, the old man!" Clemente pretends not to notice; at least, he doesn't appear outraged.
So, the Pirates are keeping their heads up remarkably well for a team of walking wounded that is only 11 games out in front. Some of them, after all, even remain healthy—though Sanguillen says he used to be a much more robust man before he took up baseball.
"I used to be big in the chest, big in the arms. Baseball take it off. The sweat run down.... I used to box and swim, I used to be big. But still, you don't see many guys that can do this." He flexes and produces a biceps the size of a grapefruit. He tweaks it with his fingers. Nothing happens. He tweaks it a little harder, and—bo-ing, there springs up a small muscle on top of a muscle. "That's muscle," says Sanguillen.
Stargell, too, still has life in him. He is in the dressing room after a Pirate victory over the Giants, in which he stroked an RBI single and tried to acquire another run by stealth. When the Giants left home plate unattended, he stole in from third. But the home-plate umpire, perhaps because Stargell sneaked up on him and made him jump as he was bending over brushing off the plate, had maintained that time was called. Now Stargell is automatically responding to the same tired old questions—about why he is hitting so many more home runs and how many more he expects to hit.
At last he arises to take his shower, takes two flip-flop steps in his number VIII shower shoes, and stops.
"Just one thing," he says. He pauses for emphasis. "I stole home."
And then he struts—not broadly, but subtly, the way a 215-pound man with bad knees and more than 30 home runs in July who knows in his heart that he really did steal home would strut—off to the shower.