And they thought swing was dead. The Pittsburgh Pirates and their legendary bats were buried near the bottom of the National League East at the All-Star break. But since then they've been baseball's hottest team. They took over first place on July 20 and by the end of last week their second-half record was 20-7.
In their astonishing turnabout, the Pirates, as real Pirates do, have been hitting: .284 since the break. But they have also gotten help from a few unlikely sources, including some batting cages north of Pittsburgh, a sportswriter from Virginia and a bird dog in New Jersey.
The North Park Batting Cages had a distinguished visitor for the three days of the break. Each day Dave Parker, a.k.a. the Cobra, Parkway, Bluto, went to North Park with his 20-month-old daughter Danielle to work on his swing. At the time, Parker was batting .242 with a measly three home runs and 21 runs batted in, and the Buccos were in fifth place, 6½ games out of first, trailing even the Cubs. Fifty-five cents buys you 10 pitches, and Parker spent more than $5 a day, which came to about 300 swings in three days. And in one of those swings, he found the secret to the Pirates' astonishing rise to the top of the National League East. From the All-Star break to the end of last week, Parker hit .340 with three homers and 14 RBIs, raising his average 29 points. Not coincidentally, the Pirates were tearing up the opposition. Their six victories last week—three over the Padres in Pittsburgh, three over the Mets in New York—put them a game ahead of second-place Philadelphia and St. Louis. The Pirates, who are paying Parker $1 million on this, the final year of his contract, owe him another $15.
Pirate fans owe Parker, too, and on the last homestand, they began to repay him. Once they pelted him with boos and radio batteries. But on July 19 they gave him a standing ovation for a nice catch he made against the Dodgers, and on Monday of last week, after his third hit of the game, a three-run eighth-inning homer, beat the Padres 6-3, they called him out of the dugout. Hard as it is to believe, it was the first curtain call of his career.
The next night, in Parker's first at bat of the second game of a doubleheader, they gave him another heartwarming ovation. The Pittsburgh fans also may be saying goodby: Parker can, and probably will, become a free agent at the end of this season.
In the meantime, as Steve Garvey of the Padres says, "The coil is back in the Cobra." Parker will drag his 32-year-old body up to the plate as if he were in an oldtimers' game. Then he'll lash a line drive and steal second. Parker is frightening not only to pitchers, but to first basemen who must stare into his power and to infielders who feel the earth move when he steals. There are 25 pounds less of Parker than there once were, thanks to the Cambridge Diet, but 235 pounds is 235 pounds. Still, he looks great.
In a way, the Pirates have been just like Parker, limping along until they've convinced just about everyone that they're through, and then they make their move. And it hasn't just been Parker. Marvell Wynne, the best baseball name to come along in a while, arrived from the minors in mid-June, and since then Pittsburgh has been wynning, thanks to his marvellous talents in center-field and leading off. He came recommended by, of all people, a sportswriter.
Pirate pitching had been steady, if unspectacular, until last week, when Jose DeLeon, up from Hawaii by way of Perth Amboy, N.J. and the Dominican Republic, flirted with two no-hitters. On Wednesday, in his second major league start, he held the Padres hitless for 6‚Öì innings and won 10-1. On Sunday he carried a no-hitter into the ninth against the Mets until, with one out, Hubie Brooks singled past Shortstop Dale Berra. Even though the Pirates eventually lost 1-0 in 12 innings, it was a great day for Perth Amboy, DeLeon's adopted hometown. "I used 50 passes, and that wasn't enough," he said after the game.
DeLeon may have just arrived, but Larry McWilliams has been doing his job all season. He has emerged as one of the best lefthanders in the league this year. And Kent Tekulve is up to his old underhanded ways as the bullpen's finisher.
And, of course, there is the Pirate stock-in-trade—hitting. Leftfielder Mike Easier was hitting .327 through last Sunday and Third Baseman Bill Madlock was chasing his fourth batting title at .328. First Baseman Jason Thompson was third in the league in on-base percentage. Catcher Tony Pe√±a and Second Baseman Johnny Ray were in the .290s, Berra had raised his average nearly 30 points to .243, and reserves Lee Lacy and Jim Morrison were hitting .312 and .354, respectively.
"It's scary," says Jim Frey, the Mets' batting coach. "Every time one of those guys comes up, the Diamond Vision screen has this box on it that says, 'So-and-so is hitting .495 in his last 25 games,' or, 'This guy has hit in 35 of his last 37 games,' or, 'What's-his-name has so many multiple-hit games this year.' That's why they call them the Pittsburgh Lumber Company."
The Slumber Company was more like it on June 19, when the Pirates lost to the Phillies 14-2 to fall to 23-36-8½ games from the lead. That night, Manager Chuck Tanner said, "This may not be the end. It may only just be the beginning." The next day the Pirates swept a double-header from the Cubs, winning both games in extra innings, to start a nine-game winning streak. Tanner is an unbridled optimist whose favorite saying is, "There are three secrets to managing. The first secret is, have patience. The second is, be patient. And the third and most important secret is, patience."
Tekulve says, "I don't think our turnaround is a tribute to patience as much as it is a tribute to bullheadedness. We absolutely, positively refused to believe we were that bad. And, believe me, we were really bad. Stinko. Manure."
Just before the All-Star break, the Pirates went into a mini-slump, falling back into fifth, and there were outward signs of concern. Parker was benched against lefthanders, and the Pirates made an appointment with an eye doctor for him, although Parker decided not to go. And Tekulve, who can also become a free agent, said he might not sign with the Pirates. It was even suggested in some quarters that the Pirate clubhouse, long known as baseball's loosest, was subdued. Actually, the stereo had been turned down, but only because a cable-TV system had been installed by the new 48% owners of the Pirates, Warner Communications Inc. Thai's all, folks.
During the San Diego series last week, the Pirate clubhouse was alive with the usual loud and ribald antics. Parker, always the center of attention, threatened various clubhouse lads with mayhem ("It's a good thing I'm not in a bad mood, because I could kill about a dozen of you little things") and showed off his new two-tone shoes. ("They cost as much as a small sports car"). Jim Bibby, a pitcher who has not been going well, announced that he would be available for interviews. Pe√±a got on Tanner about his new haircut. Madlock walked into Tanner's office and said he wanted to be traded, and Tanner said fine. Madlock also announced he was going after Steve Garvey's National League consecutive-game record—"I have eight already." Berra, who's called Yogi for some reason, brought fresh corn, salami, tomatoes and bread from home.
Wynne, 23, walked into this den of Pirates on June 15, fresh from Tidewater in the International League, having been traded by the Mets for Catcher Junior Ortiz. The Pirates originally wanted the Mets' utilty man, Bob Bailor, for Ortiz, but settled for Wynne.
The team owes a debt of thanks to a couple of sportswriters. Last year Wynne batted only .230 for Tidewater, but he stole 28 bases and drove in 65 runs batting second. George McClelland, sports editor of The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, was so impressed by Wynne that he told Charley Feeney, the amiable baseball writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that Wynne might be the guy to replace Omar Moreno, if Moreno became a free agent. Feeney relayed the information to Pittsburgh G. M. Pete Peterson, and the Pirates sent their chief scout. Howie Haak, to cross-check Wynne. The Pirates' original report on Wynne said he had only an outside chance of ever being a major-leaguer, but Haak liked what he saw the second time around. As soon as the trade was made, Tanner announced that Wynne was his centerfielder. While Pittsburgh had been getting good run production out of Lee Mazzilli, opposing teams were taking brazen liberties with Mazzilli's throwing arm, and balls that could have been caught were falling in. Wynne changed that. "The boy makes my job a lot easier," says Parker, "and he has a gun, I mean a gun, for an arm." Last weekend, as the Pirates took three of five from his old team, Wynne made half a dozen remarkable catches.
Wynne says his name is no big deal—"I know at least two other Marvells." Though his average has jumped (.281 on Sunday, up from .239 in a week) and he's starting to steal bases, it's his defense that makes him special.
A trade the Pirates made last June has also paid unexpected dividends. Pittsburgh sent Pitcher Pascual Perez to Atlanta for McWilliams, and yes, the deal helped both teams. Perez is now 12-2 and McWilliams is 10-5, but with a little luck he might easily have been better. The trade is a constant source of needling, though. "Whenever he gets into trouble." says Madlock, McWilliams in earshot, "I go to the mound and tell him, 'McCloud, Pascual won last night.' "
McWilliams is called McCloud because he bears a resemblance to Dennis Weaver, the star of the old TV series McCloud. He talks in a Fort Worth accent, leads the league in smiles, likes motorcycles and plays the guitar. Dennis Weaver, however, does not have a sneaky fastball or a forkball.
Two years ago, McWilliams was on the scrap heap after a promising beginning with the Braves. "I was something like 1-7 at Richmond with an ERA above seven," says McWilliams. "As one sportswriter put it, 'His statistics border on the obscene,' and I thought he put it pretty well." That's when the Braves' minor league pitching coach, Johnny Sain, took McWilliams aside, worked with him for days on end, eliminated his windup and gave him renewed confidence. McWilliams won 11 of his last 12 starts at Richmond and had two complete-game victories in Atlanta after that. But when he started slowly for the Braves in 1982, they packaged him to Pittsburgh.
Now, for the first time all season, the Pirates have assembled a rotation. Look what it did last week: Rick Rhoden beat the Padres Monday and would have beaten the Mets Saturday—the decision in a 6-3 win went to Rod Scurry—had he not been injured after 4‚Öì innings. Rookie Lee Tunnell beat the Padres in a complete game on Tuesday. Then, of course, there's DeLeon, who was called up from the Pacific Coast League to make a few emergency starts. After three of those emergencies, he is 2-0, allowing three runs in 26 innings with 27 strikeouts.
DeLeon came recommended to the Pirates by an old friend of Peterson, a scout named Sam Marsicano. The Pirates made him a third-round pick in the June 1979 draft, and he has begun to pay dividends. He is a better pitcher, though, than a barber. Last week he did such a bad job of cutting the hair of two-year-old Tony Pe√±a Jr. that he had to trim it all off.
The mainstays of the staff, McWilliams and John Candelaria, also performed well last week. McWilliams stopped the Mets 6-2 on Thursday, and on Friday Candelaria got his 10th win by beating Tom Seaver 2-1 as Easier and Pe√±a hit homers. The Pirates also got excellent relief performances from Manny Sarmiento and Cecilio Guante, who struck out the side with the bases loaded to save Rhoden's win over the Padres.
Still, despite all this good pitching, the Pirates were 10th in the league in ERA at week's end. Said Madlock, "It just seems that when we score two runs, the pitchers give up one, and when we score 10, they give up nine." Were it not for Bibby's and Scurry's numbers—7.82 and 5.19, respectively—Pittsburgh would be third in the NL in ERA.
But the Pirates, as they have been since Smoky Burgess was in knee pants, are a hitting team. They averaged 5.3 runs a game last week, with a different hero every day. Monday it was Parker; Tuesday, Easier; Wednesday, Ray; Thursday, Thompson; Friday, Pe√±a; Saturday, Rhoden. Sunday, it should have been Thompson again, because he hit a first-inning grand-slam homer, but the Pirates ended up losing the game in extra innings 7-6. Even though they lost the second game 1-0, again in extra innings, they did not lose their grip on first place.
To a man, the Pirates agree their pennant chances depend largely on the big guy, Parker. "It's like when I was managing the White Sox," says Tanner. "With Dick Allen in the lineup, everybody was a better hitter; they didn't have as much pressure. When he was injured, suddenly nobody could hit. Parker is that important to us. When he's hitting, he makes everybody a better hitter."
"I was pressing at the beginning of the year," says Parker. "Tried to do too much. My contract was up. I felt healthy for the first time in a long time. I knew this team had more talent than we were showing. So I was pressing."
But then Parker started going over to North Park. The batting cages have been almost magical to the Pirates. During the '81 strike, Madlock went to North Park frequently, and ended up winning the batting title. The Pirates like the fact that the cages there have old-fashioned arms that simulate real pitchers' arms, not the spinning wheels of the new machines. Also, they are very fast. "Nolan Ryan has got nothing on those machines," says Parker.
When Parker went there to work last month, though, he kept the speed down at medium. "I needed to work on things," he says. "I was lunging at the ball. My stride was off, and I was popping up a lot. So I worked on getting the head of my bat out in front quicker, and it helped. First, my confidence came back. Pretty soon, Dave Parker was back."
And as Dave Parker goes, so go the Pittsburgh Pirates.