Chuck Tanner, the former White Sox and A's manager who is in his first season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, is a bundle of baseball clichés. Games in May, he insists, are as important as those in September. Certainly St. Louis is tough, but so are San Diego and Atlanta. Everyone can beat you. But, rest assured, the other guys put their pants on one leg at a time. So play 'em one at a time, let it all hang out, never look back and have fun.
Tanner, who has been a professional since he played the outfield for Evansville (Ind.) in 1946, has never had more fun than he is having now. The Pirates—no, his Pirates—may be playing 'em one at a time, but they are winning 'em in bunches. They are galloping along at a pace second only to that of the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning roughly two out of every three games and leading the Eastern Division of the National League by—well, there's the rub. Eleven teams in the majors are playing better than .500 ball, and four of them are in the National League East. Thus, instead of disappearing over the horizon the way the Dodgers have, the Pirates are only narrowly ahead of Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia.
That the Pirates are leading their division is not a new story. After all, they have been Eastern champs five of the last seven seasons. It is how they are doing it that is surprising and the reason why it is appropriate to call them Tanner's team. He has given Pittsburgh fresh verve and a new look that has nothing to do with the variety of jazzy uniforms the players are wearing these days. The Pirates top the league in stolen bases (75), with Shortstop Frank (The Pittsburgh Stealer) Taveras, who has 18, and Centerfielder Omar Moreno (16) among the leaders. But they are hardly the whole story of Pirate thievery.
•In the 10th inning against the Dodgers last Thursday night, Ed Kirkpatrick, a lumbering gent on the base paths, stole second and later scored the winning run. Granted Dodger Reliever Charlie Hough was throwing knuckleballs, which take a while to reach the plate, but sending Kirkpatrick was an aggressive move on Tanner's part.
May 29, 1977
•Taveras stole third recently against the Reds with two outs and Johnny Bench catching. Why steal third with two outs? Tanner figured Bench's arm is so strong that Pete Rose might have trouble getting to the bag in time to catch Bench's peg. Rose indeed got there late, the throw went sailing into left field and Taveras scored.
•Bruce Kison, pitcher, tried to steal second against the Dodgers. He failed, but he reaffirmed that the Pirates are going to run and run, often when it is least expected.
Tanner also has definite ideas about pitchers. He has earned the sobriquet Happy Hooker because of his penchant for removing hurlers at the slightest sign of headache, nasal congestion or ball four. Take John Candelaria, the gangling 23-year-old with size 14 feet and a sweet fastball. The Candy Man has been the best lefthander in the league this season. Last week he shut out Cincy and beat L.A. to raise his record to 6-0 and reduce his ERA to 1.62, but in none of his efforts has he been on the mound at the end. In fact, the Pirate pitching staff has recorded seven shutouts but only three complete games.
The starters can blame that mainly on the Goose, otherwise known as Rich Gossage, who throws so hard in relief that Catcher Duffy Dyer's left palm is aching. Gossage, who worked for Tanner in Chicago and was the American League Fireman of the Year in 1975 with 26 saves, came to the Pirates in one of the numerous trades the manager effected after he himself came to the Pirates in one of baseball's most bizarre and widely criticized deals. The Bucs sent starting Catcher Manny Sanguillen and $100,000 to Oakland to obtain Tanner's services. No sooner did he arrive in Pittsburgh than Tanner started a spate of trades that sacrificed hitting, long a Pirate trademark, for speed, pitching and dependable defense. Last week Gossage, a tall, slightly plump 25-year-old, gave the Dodgers as much pain as he did his catcher, striking out eight batters, including Steve Garvey twice, in three innings. That performance lowered his ERA to a remarkable 0.84 and ran his record to 4-0. Those victories, along with his eight saves, meant that Gossage had been a valuable contributor in 12 of the Pirates' 25 wins.
Kent Tekulve, who looks like the skinny kid who is always getting sand kicked in his face, was cut from his high school team but he has persevered to become an effective alternate to the Goose. His record is 3-0, with three saves. In fact, virtually all the Pirate pitchers are big winners, with the notable exception of Jerry Reuss. A big—most Pittsburgh pitchers are considerably taller than six feet—yellow-haired man, Reuss has not only failed to win, but at one point last week he had accounted for half of the Pirates' 10 losses.
Wandering disconsolately around the clubhouse after taking an 8-3 pasting, Reuss was anxious to tell his story to anyone who would listen. "Everything that could possibly go wrong this season has," he said. 'There have been ground balls just past fielders, loopers and some plain lousy pitching by me. I always said I wanted to experience everything in baseball, but I'd just as soon have skipped this part of it. It's gotten so that I question everything I do, including how I put on my uniform."
Because Reuss has averaged 16 wins in his three seasons with the Pirates, Tanner is certain he will snap out of it. If he does, Pittsburgh will be tougher still.
In molding the Pirates to his own tastes, Tanner did not forgo all hitting. For most of the year the league's most spectacular batter this side of Los Angeles' Ron Cey has been David Gene Parker, the giant rightfielder who has been clipping along at a rate that only recently dropped below .400. His confidence is still well above that. Dave Giusti, the former Pirate relief pitcher, once said that Parker is a legend in his own head. Parker seemed to confirm that last week as he spoke to a group of teammates autographing baseballs. "You're just wasting your time," he said. "There's only one name the folks want." Then he swivel-hipped across the locker room, arms raised, fingers snapping.
"You have to be confident if you want to be successful," Parker says, and one look at him shows he is indeed that. He is a majestic player who stands 6'5" and wears a full beard and a display counter of jewelry that includes four gold rings and two necklaces. A Star of David dangles from one of them. "I'm David and I'm a star," he explains.
All this would grate were Parker not so obviously a kind man and a very good player who is well on his way to becoming what he thinks he is. In the locker room, his biceps rippling with every movement, he would seem to be a home run threat, a man capable of 40 to 50 taters a season. To the contrary, he is a stroker of line drives whose 58 hits lead the league.
Parker is also an exceptional fielder. Willie Stargell, the 36-year-old first baseman and team captain, hates it when people compare anyone, even Parker, to Roberto Clemente—"Clemente was simply Clemente," he says—but Stargell does say that Parker is the best defensive right-fielder in the league. This raises a few eyebrows but no real arguments from less biased sources. And Parker showed why last week, nailing Rose as he rounded first base too far. Pitcher Pedro Borbon of Cincinnati, a foreigner to the base paths, later made a routine turn at second on a single to right, only to find the ball waiting for him on his return to the bag. Parker had made the unorthodox—but on this occasion correct—play of throwing to second, not to third. The folks around the league are learning about Parker's arm.
Parker has never been anything but big, weighing 14 pounds, 11 ounces at birth. One day when he was still a toddler, a truant officer came around looking for his brother Richard, who was sick. The officer asked Mrs. Parker why David was not in school and was startled to learn he was only four. Predictably, Parker became an athlete of epic accomplishments at Courter Tech in Cincinnati. As a junior halfback, he gained 1,365 yards and was romanced by 62 colleges, but in his senior year disaster struck. Running a sweep to the right, Parker found the way jammed and circled back to the left. He was completing a typically heroic 40-yard run when a blind-side tackle tore the ligaments in his left knee. He had to undergo an operation.
That is why the Pirates drafted Parker as low as 14th in June 1970. He hit .314 in Bradenton, Fla., which is at the bottom of the Pirates' masthead, and then worked his way up through the system from Waterbury, Conn. to Monroe, N.C. to Salem, Va. to Charleston, W. Va. He made his Pittsburgh debut in 1973. Since then he has hit .288, .282, .308 and .313, and now has a three-year contract for an amount that he declines to discuss. Whatever it is, it has allowed him to purchase a new house for himself in Pittsburgh and one for his parents, who still live in Cincinnati.
When Parker first reached Pittsburgh, he had a hot temper that led to a lot of helmet-flipping, but he was quickly set straight by Stargell, who has always kept his cool. Stargell had an off-year in 1976, because he was distraught over the near death of his wife Dolores from a blood clot in her brain. Happily, she has completely recovered, and Stargell is crushing the ball again, although he no longer plays every day. One day last week, taking a humid afternoon off after a night game, he gleefully told his teammates, "Guys, my heart will be on the field, but my body will be where it's cool."
But any examination of Pittsburgh success must wind back to Tanner. "He knows how to motivate," says Al Oliver, the leftfielder. "He doesn't hesitate to tell us when we're doing well." Parker recalls that Danny Murtaugh, the late Pirate manager, would sit like a statue after a Pittsburgh homer. "Maybe two innings later he'd walk down the dugout and tap you on the leg." Parker says. After a homer, Tanner leads a charge off the bench, sometimes advancing halfway to the plate to extend congratulations.
True to his style and his clichés, Tanner refused to regard last week's series with the Dodgers—the season's first between the two division leaders—as different from any other, even though everyone knows that games in May are as important as games in September. Gossage did his strikeout number, and Second Baseman Rennie Stennett hit a bases-loaded single to give the Pirates a 6-5 win in the first game.
The Pirates lost the next two 6-1 and 4-3, and then on Sunday, Parker exploded with two homers, one a grandslam, and five RBIs in support of the Candy Man. Pittsburgh won 11-4 to hold onto first place.
None of this concerned Tanner long. The last-place Mets were coming to town the next day, and the Mets can be tough. They can beat you.