One afternoon late last week Pirate Manager Danny Murtaugh stood among the living grassblades of Chicago's Wrigley Field, waiting stoically to be interviewed for television before a game with the Cubs. There was a faraway look not only in his squinted eyes but also in his general demeanor, which is that of a dignified, no longer young but not yet entirely hors de combat pug dog. Before Murtaugh went on the air, an interviewer asked about his theory of managing. "You can't stay up for 162 games," Murtaugh said. "So we try to keep on an even keel."
Then he stepped before the television camera. He did not appear to be hanging on the announcer's question, but when it turned out to be the same one as before, he answered it again without hesitation. "You can't stay up for 162 games," he said. "So we try to keep on an even keel."
On the surface, that may seem a disappointingly fiat view of the Pirates. After all, they have spent the last few weeks not merely cruising along at levelheaded speed, but pushing to a strong 3½-game lead in the National League East after being as many as 4½ games out of first in May. They do not play all that evenly; they can win overwhelmingly one day and lose sloppily the next. And, however even its keel may be, other parts of the Pirates' ship seem a little out of kilter. For instance, the crew. It includes Panamanian Catcher Manny Sanguillen, who has grown a mustache and shaved his head, so that he looks like a Tartar; 6'7" rookie pitching phenom John Candelaria, who sat out of baseball when he was between ages 16 and 19, figuring he had already sufficiently impressed the big-league scouts; a veteran pitcher, Dock Ellis, who says he nearly went off to Florida last week; a bunch of batters who will take a cut at nearly anything that moves and has stitches on it; and a big hitter, Willie Stargell, who knows he is swinging well when the flesh of his fingers is being torn.
Last week in Montreal, where the Pirates won three times before leaving for Chicago where they blew a July Fourth doubleheader and then won two in a row, the bilingual scoreboard reminded the crowd that Pittsburgh last had won a World Series in 1971 from Les Orioles de Baltimore. Since then, the Pirates have suffered grave blows: Murtaugh's heart condition, Roberto Clemente's plane-crash death and ace righthander Steve Blass' mysterious, terminal loss of control. There have been recurrent arm troubles among the pitchers (former starter Bob Moose's arm developed such a profound problem that he had to have a rib removed), and slumps among established hitters, such as Bob Robertson's fall from .271 one year to .193 the next.
But Murtaugh was not just making talk when he spoke of stability. Certainly he looks as if he would have no more trouble keeping his keel even than would a fireplug in Iowa. Last week he suffered from a cold, a fever and a backache, yet even when he was out in the middle of the playing field yelling at umpires, he kept a solid, apparently comfortable stance. With both hands tucked into his waistband behind his back, Murtaugh gave the appearance of a man standing on a beach in voluminous Bermuda shorts, looking out over the ocean and serenely recollecting the days when he used to go into the water.
And with a 30-13 record since May 24, his team is well on its way toward finishing first in the East for the fifth time in the division's seven-year existence. Just about the only good thing the Pirates have not been able to do this season is win in Philadelphia, but then the second-place Phillies have not yet won in Pittsburgh. These things even out.
How can the Pirates go through so many changes and still come out on an even keel? For One thing, they are deep. No Pittsburgh player came close to being elected to this year's All-Star team, but they descend upon you in swarms, with undismissable, if not sensational, names like Richie Zisk and Bill Robinson in the outfield, Rennie Stennett and Richie Hebner in the infield, Dave Giusti, Bruce Kison, Ken Brett and Jim Rooker on the mound.
Who points the way for this rosterful of not-quite-All-Stars? Pirate Photographer Les Banos, who ought to know about leaders since, as a Hungarian secret agent in World War II, he chauffeured Goering, gives a terse account of why there is no explicit, gung-ho leadership on the team: "No followers." But the Pirates do include one of the foremost heavy presences in baseball, Stargell. Stargell has a powerful bearing, he is cool, proud, but approachable, and when he begins to limber up for a day's hitting, he takes a bat and twirls it, stretches with it, rolls his heavy muscles as he loops it around. Then he steps into the cage and windmills it menacingly a couple of times as he awaits the pitch. When the delivery comes, whip, the bat flashes like a Muhammad Ali jab, and the ball goes a long way, particularly if there are thin strips of adhesive tape around several of Stargell's fingers as there were last week.
"The skin's tearing away there," he said. "That means I'm swinging right. If those places start healing without tape on them, I know the bat's wearing on the wrong spots. But when they start tearing down close to the bone, I put the tape over them."
Stargell also believes in an even keel. "We have a uniqueness in our clubhouse," he says. "Unless it's a very tough game and we did something to help the other team win, we're the same in the clubhouse, win or lose. We stick together, and we keep grinding together. Then it gets down to September—a lot of people call that the pressure month, but I call it the joy month. That's when I enjoy playing. Everybody's tired, mentally and physically, but everybody's going out there anyway and scratching. We all scratch together.
"That's all you can do, go out there every day and do your best. If you go out there saying, 'I got to hit a home run,' 'I got to go four for four,' 'We got to win four straight,' that's not being fair to yourselves. The purpose of this game is to be your natural self. Then when it's over, you've done things right physically, and you've been very wise."
"The first Pirate I met when they were trying to sign me was Clemente," says Candelaria, a 21-year-old lefthander, who since coming up to the big club in June has shown the steadiness of a 28-year-old righthander. At the time of their meeting in Puerto Rico, Candelaria was 19 and planning to play basketball for the Puerto Rican national team. A delegation including Pittsburgh General Manager Joe Brown had come down to the island to get his name on a baseball contract. Clemente was on hand supposedly to argue on the side of the Pirate front office. "But while they tried to talk me into signing, Clemente kept telling me in Spanish, 'You can get more money,' " Candelaria recalls. "So I held out until later, when they came up with a better offer.
"I was looking forward to pitching to Clemente in batting practice the next spring. That December he was killed. He was somebody you don't expect to lose. But we've got Willie."
So far this year, with 14 home runs and 47 RBIs, Stargell is lagging behind the league leaders, although when he hits two more homers he will have 362 and pass Joe DiMaggio on the lifetime home-run list. Still, 24-year-old Rightfielder Dave Parker, who stands to become Stargell's successor as the Pirates' biggest gun, says that if Stargell "weren't paid to hit home runs, he'd be one of the best hitters for average in the league."
In his first season of full-time play, Parker is leading the team with 15 homers and is batting .323. With Parker fifth in the order, clean-up hitter Stargell feels less pressure to clean the bases. That is just fine with him, because Stargell has not been a dead-pulling, all-or-nothing swinger since his youth, and he does not like to be thought of as a slugger.
"You talk about sluggers, you're talking about big shiftless guys," Stargell says. "One year I hit 44 home runs, and I also had 43 doubles and batted .299. And the thing I enjoyed most was that I scored over 100 runs. Pitchers have so much intelligence now—they all have an idea, they move the ball around, change speeds. If you have a one-way swing, always trying to hit the ball into the seats, you're going to hit some, but then there's the strikeouts you're gonna have. The pop-ups. All these different things."
All these things, that is, that are different from line drives. Speaking of an even keel, line drives are the Pirates' forte. To make certain a Pittsburgh hitter would not hit a line drive, you would have to amputate one of his feet (thereby throwing off his level swing), warp his bat, tie his uniform pants up in knots and then transport him to someplace where baseball is not played. When they are hitting well, batters like Al Oliver, Sanguillen, Stennett and Zisk probably could hit line drives during breakfast and on motorcycles.
Parker, a 6'5" man of tremendous strength who announced plans to hit 15 home runs this season and now looks as if he will hit 30, enjoys batting among the Pirates because "they're free swingers, and so am I. And hitting's contagious." But lately he has begun to hit things even more chilling than frozen ropes. "When it started, it scared me a little," he says. "But Stargell had told me, 'You won't know when it's going to happen, but it will. You'll start to develop a little upswing.' " He has started to do just that, and his hits are carrying farther and farther.
The ultimate Pirate hitter used to be Sanguillen, who was likely to swing at anything and line it in any direction. Now he is waiting longer on pitches, and actually taking enough of them so that he walks from time to time.
Sanguillen has been replaced as the model batter by Oliver, who as usual at this time of year is working his way up through the .280s toward .300. He hits the ball where it's pitched, does not take many pitches, prides himself on being a "natural" batter who's never been taught anything and loves most to line the ball. "When you hit it solid," he says, "there's no sting at all."
Oliver is also a hard worker. "You won't see any other centerfielder shag flies as much as he does," says Pirate Announcer Nellie King. On a team of spotty fielders, Oliver is consistently good. "And when everybody was feeling sorry for the Pirates for not having a free day between June 5 and the All-Star break, Al said, 'That's great. When you see pitching every day, that's when you hit,' " King adds.
A different attitude toward time off is held by Ellis, who is working on a book entitled Stay Up and who lately has been pitching well after an early-season slump that left him with a 2-3 record. "A ballplayer has fewer days off than the average working man," Ellis says. "Did you know that? I worked it out. I nearly took off to Florida the other day to stay between starts. The only reason I'm playing anyway is to keep in shape, and for my momma and my baby. So my momma can talk and my baby can talk."
Ellis, who shakes with people left-handed in order to avoid any injury to his pitching hand, continues to create controversy without trying. "Things just arise," he says. "They had a big story in Pittsburgh quoting me saying the people aren't coming out to see us because so many of us are black. I been saying that for eight years."
Nonetheless, Ellis' emotional keel seems even. He remains at peace with baseball by enjoying such minor aspects of the game as the opportunity to shout at confused fans in a convincing vendor's voice, "Hey, get your scorecards! Score-cards here! Popcorn!"
Pirate pitching tends to be looked upon as secondary to their hitting, and the pitchers do not seem to enjoy being asked, "Isn't it nice to pitch on a team that hits so well?"
"I'd like to make a living pitching against our hitters," says Ellis. "I'd throw in the dirt, like the Dodgers' Don Sutton does to 'em. Keep throwing in the dirt, and they'll keep swinging. Of course, then one of 'em will hit it, too."
In fact, the Pittsburgh earned run average (3.10) so far this year is only a hair above that of the Padres and Dodgers, who are one-two in the league. Jerry Reuss, 9-6 with a 2.31 ERA, has been the ace. In the off-season he had his keel evened out by Arthur Ellen, the same L.A. hypnotist who eased the mind of Sutton last year. Whenever he begins to press, instead of just doing his best from one pitch to another, Reuss is supposed to push his thumbtip and fingertip together. He has not had to do that since early in the season. "The guy just told me, 'You need to relax. So do a lot of other people. The only way you're different is that you admit it.' I don't know how much credit to give the guy, but I've had good confidence all year."
No greater confidence than young Candelaria has shown in running his record to 3 and 1 in five starts. He is not brash, but when he first walked into the Pirate dressing room he acted as if he had been there all his life. Candelaria throws two different fastballs and three different curves with amazing control and sense of mixology for one so young. He grew up in Brooklyn. When he was three years old, his father managed the baseball team that represented Friendly Tavern in Central Park. He remembers with pleasure going with his father to those games. Then his parents separated, and his father went back to Puerto Rico.
"That helped," he says. "I don't mean it helped me in the long run, but it made me more independent. I started throwing curves when I was eight. When I was 14, people started telling me I would hurt my arm throwing them, but I figured I'd done whatever damage I was going to do. Then when I was 16, people started making me pitch too much, wearing me out, and I quit to play basketball. I'd already talked to the big-league scouts."
Sure enough, when he graduated from high school they drafted him on the basis of what they had seen three years before. Now, two years later, he is helping the Pirates even-keel haul the National League.