With exactly 20 games left in the season, like the hare who kept expecting to catch the tortoise around the next bend and never did, the Pittsburgh Pirates—the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates—realized they were losing a pennant race. Suddenly last Saturday there was Dave Parker exhorting his teammates by the batting cage, calling himself the baddest and the meanest and guaranteeing—guaranteeing—that the Pirates would beat the front-running Expos in the final two games of last weekend's three-game series. There was Omar Moreno, his left little finger horribly crooked and swollen, saying, "This game today, we must win it," with the slightly awed look of a man in grave danger. Even the unflappable Chuck Tanner reached into his bottomless bag of managerial clichès to allow that this was not just another game, that his men knew what they had to do and would do it. It was last October all over again, when, trailing the Baltimore Orioles three games to one, the Family pulled together to take three straight games and the World Series. Pressure? Bring it on. The Pirates thrive on it.
Three hours later the Pirates had moved back to within 3½ games of the Montreal Expos on the strength of Don Robinson's 4-0 win, his first complete-game shutout since May of 1978.
"This was our biggest game of the year," Robinson said afterward, "but tomorrow's game is even more important."
But if the Pirates—and Parker—thought they could shut their opponents on and off like tap water, they were being, well, harebrained. On Sunday the Expos' Bill Gullickson returned Robinson's favor by beating the Pirates 4-0 on three hits, pushing Pittsburgh five games behind in the loss column with 18 left to play. The Pirates, who allowed the first three Montreal batters to score, were never in the game. Worse, they fell 3½ behind the second-place Phillies, and finished the week with four losses in five games against the two teams they had to catch.
September 21, 1980
Clearly, this wasn't the same Pirate team that worked its magic in 1979—when the Bucs came from behind to win 41 games, 25 of them in their last at bat. The 39-year-old Willie Stargell, who last September hit eight home runs and had five game-winning RBIs, was watching from the sidelines. He has been there since mid-August, suffering from damaged cartilage in his left knee, and during that time Pittsburgh has fallen from first to third and won only eight of 26 games. Were there a quality tortoise in the race, it would already be too late for the Pirates, but during that same stretch neither the Phillies nor the Expos have been playing much better than .500 ball. However, the very earliest Stargell can hope to come back is Sept. 25, and by then it'll probably be all over for Pittsburgh. "I hate to sit and watch this time of year," Stargell says. "But I can't do anything for the next two weeks except ride a bicycle."
Irrational as it sounds, Pittsburgh is a better team with Stargell in the lineup, even if he goes 0 for 5. His presence carries with it more than a good bat; he is a 6'3", 225-pound good-luck charm. When he takes the field at first base, there is a sense of security among the Pirates that Willie is in his heaven and nothing can harm them. Conversely, opponents are uplifted by his absence. "Let's face it," one Expo said last weekend, "there's a big difference between seeing Stargell on first and John Milner."
Especially in September. During the '70s, the Pirates won 185 out of 299 games played in that telling month (.619), and they were six for six in holding on to first place. But this September they have lost eight of 13 (.385) and have fallen from first to third. And Stargell's injury isn't the only reason. The relief pitching, once Tanner's pride and joy, has recently shown a tendency to fray under stress, and injuries have so eroded the Bucs' once-vaunted bench strength that Executive Vice-President Harding Peterson was moved on Aug. 29 to sign the well-traveled Bernie Carbo, who was out of baseball and working in a hair-dressing salon near Detroit.
Still, the world champs have exhibited a certain pluck that leads Tanner to enthuse, "I'm prouder of this team than I was of last year's world championship club because of what it's had to overcome." Tanner is the sort of man for whom the sky turns bluer every day, so such a remark must be viewed with suspicion, but it's true that the Pirates have had at least their share of injuries. Stargell has played in just 67 games, and Bill Robinson, who has a severly bruised right heel, 88. Parker has missed 19 games with no fewer than eight different injuries, and for the last eight weeks has been hobbling in the outfield like a man with the gout. In the off-season he may undergo surgery similar to that which Stargell had four weeks ago, an arthroscopic procedure by which bits of cartilage are sucked from the knee through a straw-like instrument. "I can't steal bases; I can't turn singles into doubles; I can't turn doubles into triples," Parker says. "That's my game." His run production is also off significantly from a year ago, a consequence in no small measure of the absence of Stargell's bat behind him in the order. Moreno, in fact, is the only Pirate not to have missed a game, and he is playing with a dislocated finger that might have to be operated on this winter. The only way he can grip the bat with his left hand is to build up the handle with tape. "Sure, our record's not what it was last year," says Tanner, "but all you hope for at the start of any season is to be in position to win the thing in the last month. Well, we're there."
Maybe. In the week and a half ending last weekend, the Pirates have endured what could turn out to be the knockout blow to their season: 10 road games in 10 days in four cities, Atlanta, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Montreal. After dropping three straight to the Braves, they lost two more to the Phillies, 6-2 and then 5-4 in 14 innings. The first game was tied 2-2 after seven innings, Tanner went to his bullpen, and Enrique Romo was promptly nailed for three runs. The game ended with Phil Garner, the Bucs' pesky second baseman, taking called second and third strikes with the bases loaded. Strange doings.
The next loss was even stranger. First, Lee Lacy, the leftfielder, lost a line drive in the lights—a line drive? Aw, come on—after two were out in the second inning, allowing a run to score. Still, the Pirates led 4-2 in the eighth inning when Tanner again called on his bullpen, which not long ago was considered the most formidable in the game. Lefthander Grant Jackson allowed a double, and when Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski were scheduled up with two out, Tanner called on his ace, Kent Tekulve. Tekulve gave up a triple to Schmidt and a single to Luzinski. That tied it at 4-4. The Phillies won in the 14th on a squeeze.
"We can't come from behind anymore," says one team official. Tekulve's failure to get a save in the second Philadelphia defeat was the most recent in a series of five abysmal performances by him since Aug. 26. In that time he has had an ERA of 5.65 and has lost four games in nine outings—three at the hands of Atlanta, a team that has beaten Pittsburgh 11 of 12 times this season.
Earlier this season, Tekulve watched fellow submariner Dan Quisenberry of Kansas City on television and noticed something he was doing wrong. Tekulve called Quisenberry that night and tipped him off. Since then Quisenberry has been superb—he has a chance to set the major league record for the highest combined total of wins and saves in a year—and he has been most appreciative of Tekulve's help. He sent his tutor a card on Father's Day, thanking him for, as it were, fathering his pitch. Now the quip in Pittsburgh is that Tekulve is hoping Quisenberry will get a glimpse of him on television so that Quisenberry can correct his delivery. In the meantime, Tekulve is making do with what's available to him. The other night in St. Louis an idea came to him in the middle of the night, and he hopped out of bed in his underwear to practice throwing in front of the motel mirror. "I think I've corrected it now," he says. "The ball just wasn't moving the way I wanted it to."
But he wasn't able to test it out in a game right away because Pittsburgh's starting pitching has been superb of late, the one bright spot down the stretch. Wednesday the Pirates ended a five-game losing streak by beating the Cardinals 7-6, and the next night Bert Blyleven, who has been critical of Tanner's early hook all year, pitched a complete 2-1 game. It was before that game that the Pirates got the word that Stargell's knee was healing more slowly than had been hoped and that he would be out for two more weeks. The players called a team meeting to discuss the prospect of life without Pops. "If 25 grown men have to depend on one man to play well," said Tekulve, "it's a bad situation."
For Stargell, who has two years left on his contract, the injury could mean the end of his brilliant career after 19 seasons. The knee went on Aug. 17 as he turned away from an inside 3-1 pitch from Gullickson. "Mother nature said that's as far as you can go," he says. "The doctor said he didn't see how I could still stand. He said it looked like white-and-red cotton candy in there."
Stargell had been told he'd be able to play in three weeks, in time for last weekend's crucial series with the Expos. But 39-year-old legs don't recover so quickly. When the doctor examined Stargell last Thursday, he told him the knee would need more rest. "I thought for sure he was going to say I could go," Willie says. "But it's like biting the inside of your mouth. It just takes time to heal." Asked if he feared the knee might never heal enough for him to play again, Stargell said, "I do one thing at a time. Right now I'll just ride that bicycle and hope the knee comes along."
The rest of the Pirates, arriving in Montreal after Blyleven's win over St. Louis, would have gladly gone for bicycles over the two buses that were chartered to meet them at the airport. For half an hour, no buses showed. There were no taxis, no cars, no nothing. Finally, one bus came—the other had broken down—and half the players climbed in, thinking they were the lucky ones. That bus got lost. The second bus arrived in another half hour, and the two arrived at the hotel minutes apart—at around 5:20 a.m. A thing like that would never have happened if Pops had been around. That night, in a marvelously played game, Pittsburgh lost to Montreal 1-0 and fell 4½ games back. It was then the Pirates decided they were in a pennant race, and Parker, acknowledging that they played best under pressure, ordered up a sweep of the rest of the series.
Whether, like the proverbial hare, they have waited too long to bear down remains to be seen. They will certainly be in good company if they fall short, because right now it appears that for the second year in a row the four divisional champions will all be unseated. What is most remarkable is that the Pirates are in contention at all, given the middling performances of most of the players. They're not having bad years, just average ones. "What makes it tough to repeat is you have to be a little bit lucky two years running," says Tekulve, whose ERA is still a respectable 3.15 despite his recent failures. "And you have to have a few players who have career bests."
Lacy and Mike Easier, who share left-field, are having great years, and starter Jim Bibby is 16-5, but the rest of the team has idled along unspectacularly. Yet the fact remains that in pressure games the Pirates are a very tough team to beat. On the year they have won 10 of 16 games from Philadelphia and 11 of 15 from Montreal. Both teams must play twice more in Three Rivers Stadium, so the schedule—if not the standings—favors the Pirates, whose last eight games are against the struggling Mets and the hapless Cubs. Neither the Expos nor the Phillies have much of a reputation for winning in the clutch, and the loosey-goosey, We-Are-Family spirit of the Pirates is still apparent in the clubhouse, although sometimes it seems strained. "When I retire, it will be because of long road trips and loud music," one of the Family confesses.
During an eight-game losing streak last month, the players started taking away the stars that Stargell so lavishly hands out for good performance, and during Parker's tirade before Saturday's 4-0 win over Montreal, he could be heard profaning the old man, Stargell, who was up in the NBC booth instead of playing in pain. "I'm serious." Parker screamed, Ali-style. "I may not be walking when I'm 56, but I'm going to play!" He gingerly pointed to his knee. "I want you guys to play like I'm playing!"
Moreno took him at his word. Before the game, he was saying how he couldn't steal bases with his finger as it was, because it prevented him from executing the head-first slide. The first chance he got, he stole anyway. Milner knocked in two runs with two singles.
Parker to the contrary, there was just a hint after the game that the Pirates had decided if they weren't going to win it with Willie, they were going to win it for him. They better hurry.