The city of Pittsburgh has been alternately cursed and blessed this year by two baseball teams, the nine Marx Brothers who opened the season and the gallant swashbucklers who are now closing it. Alas, the two teams are but one. The first of them recalls the 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates, losers of 112 games, and the other the 1971 Pirates, winners of a world championship. Why this has happened is a question to which no one, especially the Pirates themselves, seems to have a plausible response.
To some, such as the ordinarily courteous Willie Stargell, the mere asking constitutes a personal affront. "No secret," said a suddenly dour Willie one morning last week in the visitors' clubhouse at Candlestick Park. "We were losing earlier. We're winning now." It was as if this line of questioning were not entirely unfamiliar to him, an impression heightened by his subsequent riposte, "You haven't been following us, have you?"
"The difference between our team now and the one playing the first half of the season," says young Rightfielder Richie Zisk with mock solemnity, "is that we lost more then and we win more now."
There is no disputing such withering tautology. Pittsburgh, considered a prime contender for the championship
of the National League East, began its quest by losing its first six games and 10 of its first 12. By June 7 the Pirates were 14 games under .500 and staggering. Somehow they righted themselves and progressed for a time with the tentativeness of a tosspot on the mend, going nowhere in particular but staying upright. Then there came what Manager Danny Murtaugh now considers "the turning point"—a fist-swinging row with the truculent Cincinnati Reds on July 14.
"Sometimes something like that is needed," says Murtaugh, whose mournful countenance looks as if it had been abused by a succession of heavyweight contenders. "It got us moving again, gave us togetherness." Not that he can take credit for it. On fight night, Murtaugh was abed with back trouble. "I was told it was a good one," he says with the smug assurance of a noncombatant.
The Reds are forever brawling with someone, but the Pirates were behaving like patsies at that point in the season. The fight, which resulted from a bean-ball war, revived dormant combativeness. Pittsburgh's Ed Kirkpatrick was seen shoving Sparky Anderson after the Reds' manager stomped—accidentally, Anderson insisted—on his toe.
The Pirates took that game and the succeeding seven. Since the unpleasantness they have won 32 and lost only 13, a pace that had rocketed them from ignominy to first place in their division by the beginning of last week. The pennant battle was hardly won, but for once this season Pittsburgh was the chased, not the chaser. And, as Centerfielder Al Oliver, a .319 hitter who murders pitching and logic with equal facility, said, "It is always better to be chased than to chase."
Last week, in a three-game series with the Giants in San Francisco, the Pirates demonstrated some of the reasons for their revival. They hit when it mattered; they enjoyed effective, if hardly overpowering pitching; they fielded not always well but brilliantly at critical moments; and they were plain lucky.
In the opener they scored 13 runs on 12 hits, all but two of them singles, as Dock Ellis held the Giants to two runs on 10 hits for his eighth straight win. More than any other player, Ellis reflects Pittsburgh's schizophrenic season. He had lost eight of 12 decisions through mid-July; his win last week brought his record to 11-8. The next day in the first of a pair of 11-inning matches, the Pirates scored three times on eight hits, while Starter Jerry Reuss and Reliever Dave Giusti somehow limited the Giants to a single run on 14 hits. Counting walks and errors, 17 Giants reached base in this unusual game. The Pirates eventually won when Kirkpatrick, who plays first base against right-handed pitching, doubled home two runs to break a 1-1 tie that seemed eternal. It was the sixth game-winning hit for Kirkpatrick, an American League transplant. The Giants won the second of the 11-inning ordeals 3-2, the first Pirate defeat after six straight wins. It was a brief reversal. The Pirates opened their next series in Los Angeles with a 4-3 victory, scoring three of their runs in an eighth-inning outburst against relief ace Mike Marshall.
In the three games at Candlestick, the Giants outhit Pittsburgh 33-28, but San Francisco was outscored 18-6—a manifestation of the Pirates' rediscovered talent for timely hitting.
The early-season jokers from Pittsburgh had as finely tuned a sense of timing as the California journalist who once wrote of a track meet, "The eyes of the world are on Fresno today," at the precise moment Nazi Panzer divisions were crossing the Polish border. Stargell, who had shown the firepower of a tank by driving in well over 100 runs the past three seasons, had only 27 RBIs the first two months of this one. His subalterns were scarcely more productive as the Pirates stranded base runners in ridiculous profusion. And if the hitting was ill-timed, the fielding was simply ill.
"We played unbelievably sloppy baseball," says Third Baseman Richie Hebner, who committed 17 errors the first half of the season and has had only three since. "We were giving the other teams four and five outs an inning. We'd go to the park and find a different way to lose every day."
The Pirates now are getting serviceable defense from Second Baseman Rennie Stennett, who also has had only one error during the second half of the season, and the rookie tandem at shortstop, Frank Taveras and Mario Mendoza, whom Murtaugh whimsically alternates. Taveras, a slightly better hitter—.258 batting average compared to Mendoza's .230—and a fielder with more range, if less finesse, seems now to be the incumbent.
The starting pitchers have not been a problem, although Ken Brett, who is both a bat and an arm, has been lost temporarily with elbow maladies. But Reliever Giusti suffered miserably through the first half of the season and is only now regaining what he calls, in a term reminiscent of departed White House aides, his "confidence factor."
Still these are merely tangibles and, as everyone must know by now, baseball games are won on intangibles. These the Pirates have in abundance. Even in their darkest hours their intangibles remained inviolate.
"We knew we were going bad," says Oliver, who has been a consistent batter throughout the divided season and had a 21-game hitting streak halted against the Giants. "We also knew that once we got started, we could win it all. Oh, we heard it from the fans. They were down on us. Luckily, players don't think like fans. To the people in the stands, it's entertainment. To us, it's our job. They can give up on us, but we can never give up on ourselves. It's our living. One thing people don't seem to realize about athletes is that we're human beings who can make mistakes just like anybody else. But our ball club has always had a winning attitude. We know from the past that we can win. That attitude never changed, even when we were losing. Not too many teams could have gone through what we did and keep that same attitude."
The team's leading batter in only his second full major league season, Zisk admits to being impressed with the Pirates' frame of mind. "I've never played on a team that really turned it around like this one," he says. "It's a new experience."
It is truly remarkable that the Pirates with their wealth of talent should have had to turn it around. If nothing else, they must be the most impressive batting-practice hitters since the 1927 Yankees unnerved an earlier Pittsburgh team with a pregame show of power that led to a sweep of that year's World Series.
On a gray, almost windless morning last week in cold Candlestick, the Pirate sluggers took their licks against batting-practice pitchers Don Leppert and Bob Skinner. Left-handed Oliver, broad-shouldered and sleek, concentrated first on hitting to left, lining four consecutive balls in that direction, one of which easily cleared the fence. To demonstrate that he has another side to him, he then blistered a pitch into right field.
After Manny Sanguillen, swinging at everything that approached, including balls over his head, converted them all into frozen ropes, Zisk stepped in. He has a young, mustachioed, rather inconsequential face, and he does not appear especially athletic, yet Skinner describes him as "one of the best-looking young hitters to come along in years." His .330 batting average with 15 home runs and 83 RBIs is proof enough of that, and Zisk quickly reinforced Skinner's estimate by lofting successive fly balls over the left-field fence with his near-perfect swing.
Finally, massive Stargell lumbered up. He has 21 home runs and 75 RBIs. He twirled his big bat as if it were a majorette's baton, then settled into the left-handed batter's box and effortlessly propelled three balls into the distant territory beyond right center field. He was followed by Dave Parker, a towering 6'5" junior Stargell, but still a part-time player. He launched a ball into the right-field upper deck.
The Giants wisely resisted watching this chilling spectacle, preferring the warmth of the clubhouse where they read the boxscores and ruminated on past humiliations. The Pirates are finished with rumination. One season is already behind them, another is in the works. They have lived the Robert Louis Stevenson tale in reverse, downing the magic potion to transform themselves from bad to good.
"We lost a lot of games early that we should have won," says Reuss, the starting pitcher with flowing blond hair and a 14-9 record. "Now we're winning those games. Water, as they say, seeks its own level."
The Pirates know their level. They've almost reached it.