Chuck Tanner was smiling. At the time, his Pirates, last in the NL East in '84, were 1-10 in spring training. Injuries had beset six key players, and George Hendrick, the big bopper acquired from St. Louis in the off-season, was 1 for 23, the I being an infield single. The franchise was up for sale, mostly because in 1984 home attendance had dipped to a 15-year low. So why was he smiling? Chuck Tanner is always smiling.
"I like our chances," says the Pittsburgh manager. "Sure, we have a lot of question marks, but so does everyone else. Can each of the Cubs have as good a year? Do the Mets have enough pitching? What will the deletion of Bruce Sutter mean to the Cards? Are we all better? I think the Pirates are. That's my opinion. And you know what? Baseball is just an opinion. You never know in this game."
We believe you, Chuck. The Pirates will be better than the team that pulled off the seemingly impossible last year, leading the league in ERA while finishing 21½ games out. Only two NL teams scored fewer runs than Pittsburgh did, so the Pirates went out and got some help.
New to the club are Hendrick, Steve Kemp, Sixto Lezcano, Bill Almon and Tim Foli. The Pirates have many, um, how shall we say it? "Misfits is the word you're looking for," says Bill Madlock, captain and third baseman. "We have a lot of people nobody else wanted," says Kemp, unwanted by the Yankees.
They have become baseball's version of the L.A. Raiders. Also seen strolling around camp were such ghosts as Lee Mazzilli, Rick Reuschel, Mitchell Page, Juan Eichelberger, Dave Tomlin and Bob Walk. If this were 1980, the Pirates might have a helluva team. But it's not, and a lot of people have to prove they can still play. Hendrick is 35 and coming off a crashingly mediocre year with the Cardinals, who got John Tudor for him. Kemp, who had an eye injury in 1983 that temporarily blurred his vision, is recovering from shoulder surgery and nursing a pulled hamstring. It would certainly be nice to have him back. Otherwise, the Pirates will be relying on the unreliable Lezcano.
Tanner has three players he won't have to worry about: catcher Tony Pena, second baseman Johnny Ray and centerfielder Marvell Wynne. Madlock says he hasn't felt healthier in years, and if he hits well, everyone else in the lineup will hit better, too. First baseman Jason Thompson will have to do better against lefthanded pitchers than one homer and nine RBIs in 127 at bats. The shortstop will either be the 34-year-old Foli or the weak-hitting Rafael Belliard.
The Pirates' starting pitching is the envy of the league: Rick Rhoden, Larry McWilliams, Jose DeLeon, Lee Tunnell and Mike Bielecki, who was 19-3 at Hawaii. Kent Tekulve is still around, although Tanner gave him only 18 save opportunities last year, 13 on which he made good. Don Robinson, whose stuff frightens many NL hitters, or John Candelaria may end up as the short man.
"You know what's great about this game?" says Tanner. "We've had seven different world champions in the last seven years. Every year some player and some team comes to the front that nobody expected."
He didn't say it, but his inference was clear. Maybe the Pirates will come to the front. It's only a maybe, though.