Major league baseball, like medical science, lacks an exact definition of death. When is a team really dead, its hope lost, its chances gone? Consider, if you will, the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Oh, yes, they are very much alive today. They are showing an overly rapid heartbeat perhaps, but that is not unusual for a team in the thick of a pennant race in September. However, less than a month ago Pittsburgh had no discernible pulse. A mirror held in front of its mouth showed no vapor. Everyone but those nit-pickers who claim a team hasn't kicked the bucket until it is mathematically eliminated agreed the Pirates were dead.
On Aug. 12 Pittsburgh was 10 games under .500 and 11½ games behind Philadelphia. It had lost 17 of 21 games, the last three to the Phillies by scores of 3-1 (gasp), 15-4 (choke) and 10-1 (expire). It was all over. The Philadelphia newspapers said it, the Pittsburgh papers said it, and a lot of people on both sides of the field believed it. "I thought we were out of it, and I think everyone else felt the same way," says Pirate Ed Ott.
Well, not quite everyone. Pittsburgh's ever-optimistic manager, Chuck Tanner, didn't. "Sometimes the end can be the beginning," he said. While everyone tried to figure out what that meant, the Pirates beat the Phillies the next day 7-3. Then Pittsburgh returned home and beat Cincinnati 7-4. Mirabile dictu, maybe the Pirates were not finished after all. Sure enough, the Bucs arose from their deathbed to go on an incredible streak that, through the end of last week, had produced 19 victories in 22 games and carried them into second place, just two games back of Philadelphia. They would have been even closer if a game last week in which they were leading Cincinnati 8-3 had not been rained out in the fourth inning. Tanner has been vindicated, and baseball science is baffled.
"We weren't ready to die," Willie Stargell says. "We were like a miner trapped in a deep shaft. Everyone thought we were dead. But we saw a speck of light, and you know what a man is going to do in a situation like that. He is going to fight to get out. That's what we did. It's been a great show of character."
September 10, 1978
Even more stunning than the Pirates' recovery is that they got so far behind in the first place. During the nine seasons of divisional play, Pittsburgh has won five titles and never finished worse than third. Throughout the 1970s no team has been more often a winner or a close contender. Though the Pirates finished second the last two seasons, they won 92 and 96 games, respectively. But they got off to a miserable start this year, losing seven of their first 10 games, and even while the Phillies played with such little flair that they would have been easy targets for recent Pittsburgh clubs, the Bucs seemed incapable of righting themselves. Until last week, they had never been more than three games over .500. Nor had they been as high as second in the standings since April 27. According to rookie Pitcher Don Robinson, the reason was elementary: "We wasn't hitting much, and when we was, we wasn't pitching."
Lately, the Pirates have been doing both in abundance. The pitching has probably been the most impressive facet of Pittsburgh's play, thanks mainly to Robinson, newcomer Bert Blyleven and newly situated Kent Tekulve. Robinson, a righthander, has won six straight games to give him an 11-5 record, and Blyleven has won nine of his last 12, making him 12-8. Both of them have prospered by expanding their pitching repertoires, which had consisted mostly of fastballs and curves. Robinson has improved his slider, and Blyleven has added a change-up. "I never had the confidence to throw one before," Blyleven says, "but now that I have it, I can keep the hitters off balance and be stronger at the end of the game."
Blyleven came to Pittsburgh from Texas in an 11-player deal that also involved the Braves and the Mets. The 21-year-old Robinson had to earn his way onto the team in the spring—and he did it despite the opinion of Pete Peterson, the vice-president of player personnel, that he needed at least one year of Triple A experience. Virtually all of Robinson's previous pro experience had been in the Gulf Coast, Western Carolinas and Texas leagues.
The team's other starting pitchers have not fared as well. There is not a winning record or a low ERA among them. Particularly disheartening for Pittsburgh have been the performances of Jim Rooker (8-9, 4.50) and John Candelaria (10-11, 3.39). Only recently has Candelaria begun to exhibit the form of last season, when he had a magnificent 20-5 record. Still, Tanner predicts that "He'll be our key" down the stretch. Another pitcher who could help is Bruce Kison, a spot starter against the Braves on Friday. He pitched 7⅖ innings of two-hit ball to combine with Tekulve for a shutout.
Tekulve, who has been with the Pirates since 1975, wears thick tinted glasses, has a protruding Adam's apple that bobs up and down his skinny neck, and at 6'4", 157 pounds, is more than vaguely reminiscent of Ichabod Crane.
But old Ichabod couldn't hum it like Tekulve. He leads the league with 77 appearances (a Pirate record), and his sinking semisubmarine pitches have brought him six wins, 28 saves and a 1.74 ERA. Last Friday night, against Atlanta, he saved both games of a doubleheader, the second time he has done that this year, and he pitched two shutout innings of a 12-inning 4-3 victory on Saturday.
A year ago, when Rich Gossage was the Pirates' late-inning specialist, Tekulve worked mostly the middle innings and had a 10-1 record. "I knew I could take Gossage's place, but I wondered who would take mine," he says. That duty has been shared by Grant Jackson and rookie Eddie Whitson. They have done such a good job—10 wins and eight saves between them—that Tekulve does not even bother going to the bullpen until the sixth inning.
Pittsburgh's offensive strategy is easy to figure. The first two batters, Frank Taveras and Omar Moreno, try to run opponents to death, and the next two, Dave Parker and Stargell, try to pound them to death. Taveras has 35 steals and an improved batting stroke, and Moreno has a league-leading 59 swipes and a team-high 63 walks. Thirty-two of their steals have led to runs.
While Taveras and Moreno crackle like lightning, Parker and Stargell rumble like thunder. Parker leads the team in homers with 23 and RBIs with 91, and last week he took a big step toward successfully defending his batting title—he hit .338 in 1977—by gaining the league lead at .317. Stargell's statistics are 22-72-.292, his best figures since 1975. Together Parker and Stargell wrecked the Braves. Stargell had two doubles and a home run in Friday's 8-3 first-game victory, and Parker had two hits in each game. On Saturday Stargell walloped a mammoth three-run homer in the first inning, and Parker won the game with a bases-loaded single in the 12th, his third hit of the afternoon.
They were not out there alone, of course. Rookie Dale Berra, Yogi's son, the third baseman, had a two-run homer in Friday's 3-0 second-game victory, and he saved a run—and the game—by stabbing a line drive in the eighth inning on Saturday. He had a three-run homer in the ninth Sunday to clinch a 6-3 win.
Stargell, 37, has been slowed by infirmities the last two seasons, and with something called a "sprained fracture" in his right ankle, he says he is now playing at only 70% of capacity. Always quick with a metaphor, he explains his ability to hold on for 17 seasons by comparing himself to a giant oak tree: "Strong roots, a sturdy trunk and branches going out in all directions. When a big storm comes, I bend but don't break, and then I bloom again next year."
Stargell is nowhere near ready for the woodpile. He got his 2,000th hit last week, and he was able to joke about another plateau he reached earlier this season. He became baseball's alltime strikeout leader when he surpassed Mickey Mantle's total of 1,710. That made him, Stargell notes, "King of the U-turns."
Parker, 27, has been hurt, too. He missed the first two weeks of July with a fractured cheekbone following a shattering home-plate collision with Met Catcher John Stearns. When he returned on July 16 his batting average plunged from .316 to .288, but since Aug. 7 he has hit .409.
There is probably no other player in baseball with as much confidence as Parker—or with so much ability to back it up. Not only can he hit, but despite being 6'5" and 235 pounds, he is also one of the fastest of the fleet Pirates. In addition, he has one of the half dozen best arms among big league outfielders. While strutting and crowing around the clubhouse last Saturday, he declared loudly, "Every team needs a foundation, and I'm it. Just look at me," he continued, expanding his massive chest and flexing his arm muscles, which bulge even in repose. "They ought to pay me just to walk around here."
Parker believes he is vastly underpaid, and by current standards he is. General managers concur that he is the best player in the National League, and Tanner says he is "the best in the world." So sorry, Sadaharu. Too bad, Jim Rice. Although his current contract—estimated at $200,000 a year—does not expire until the end of next year, he would like an extension that would make him the highest-paid player in baseball. If he has to be traded to achieve that ambition, he would not mind moving over to Philadelphia. "Just think of that outfield," he rhapsodizes, envisioning himself alongside Greg Luzinski and Garry Maddox. "A pig in left, a greyhound in center and Adonis in right."
It would be easy to discount all this as the raving of an egomaniac, except for the fact that spouting this kind of verbiage is the way Parker prepares himself for each game. "I'm a verbalizer," he says. "Some guys have to meditate to get ready, but I talk trash and come out swinging."
That nobody in the league swings better is what made the climax to Saturday's game so unusual. With one out and a runner at third, Braves Manager Bobby Cox intentionally walked Taveras and Moreno to fill the bases, accepted strategy with the home team at bat in a tied, extra-inning game. Cox would have done well to throw away the book, because the walks brought up Parker. Adonis lined the second pitch into right center to end the game. "I don't know why he did it," Parker said, "but when the season ends, I'm going to look back and say 'Thank you.' "
Parker knows full well the critical importance of every game at this time of year. The Pirates have gone on similar hot streaks before and come up short. Last year they won 12 of their last 13 and still finished five back. In 1976 they won 18 of 22 from Aug. 25 to Sept. 17, cutting a 15½-game lead to three, and wound up nine games behind.
As impressive as the Bucs' latest streak is, 14 of the victories came in games with the two bottom teams in the Western Division. Against teams with winning records the Pirates are 30-41, including 3-9 against the Phillies and 6-6 against the division's other contender, third-place Chicago. Still, as Second Baseman Phil Garner points out, "You've gotta get those clubs on the bottom and kick 'em good. You can't let 'em up."
It is not going to be so easy for the Pirates the rest of the way, because they have six more games each with the Cubs and the Phillies. But if the Bucs can hang close until the last week at least they will have the opportunity to win or lose it for themselves; they finish the season at home with three games against Chicago and four against Philly.
"It's war at this time of the year, but I love it," says Tanner. "I like our chances. The way things have gone lately I'm beginning to think we're a team of destiny." He could be dead right.