The Pirates Are Strictly The Pits

Sept. 09, 1985
Sept. 09, 1985

Table of Contents
Sept. 9, 1985

Southern 500
Aaron Pryor
Japan's Game
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

The Pirates Are Strictly The Pits

Would anybody like to buy a ball club that's 20 games out of fifth place and averaging fewer than 11,000 fans per game?

Hello down there...down there...down there. We can hardly see you, Pittsburgh Pirates...Pirates...Pirates. The National League misses you...misses you...misses you. Please come back soon with your Fam-i-lee...i-lee...i-lee....

This is an article from the Sept. 9, 1985 issue Original Layout

This is a sad story, so sad that it's almost funny—and maybe even hopeful. After all, any team with young pitching and an Egyptian shortstop can't be completely written off. But the numbers are grim for the Pirates, world champions just six years ago, division title contenders as recently as 1983. Now the Bucs are in last place in the NL East with a disastrous 40-87 record, 38 games behind St. Louis. They're a sure bet to lose more than 100 games, and if they play their cards wrong, they have an outside shot at sinking below the magic .300 mark.

The Pirates haven't won three straight games all season. Until last Saturday, when they beat the Reds 6-0 in Cincinnati, they had lost 19 consecutive road games, just three shy of the major league record held by the 1963 Mets and the 1890 Pirates. They have the worst ERA in the league (4.01) and the second-lowest batting average (.239). The once-mighty Lumber Company, now turning out dowels, has hit 59 home runs this season, only five more than Ralph Kiner alone smacked in 1949.

Worst of all, the Pirates have drawn only 10,501 fans per home game, perhaps four of whom have attempted to cheer. Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez recently called Three Rivers Stadium "a morgue." More than a few Pirate players expect baseball to die soon in the city. "Even in the great years this place didn't draw," says first baseman Jason Thompson. "The [troubled] economics of the city can't be the only reason. There are depressed cities that support their teams. The fans here are apathetic."

"You don't mind getting booed on the road, but it really hurts at home," said longtime third baseman Bill Madlock just before he was traded to the Dodgers on Saturday. "The other day [infielder] Jim Morrison got hit by a pitch and the fans cheered."

The team, which lost $5.8 million in 1984, was put up for sale by its genial owners, the Galbreath family, last November. So far, no one has met the reported $40 million asking price. "It took 8½ months before we got an offer from someone in the Pittsburgh area," team president Dan Galbreath told SI's Jim Reynolds. "The most incredible and disturbing thing is that the people and government of the city don't believe us when we say we're losing money. We show them our books and they still don't believe us. Forty years in baseball and we don't have credibility with the people of Pittsburgh."

Local fans have been turned off by rumors linking their team—even the mascot, the Pirate Parrot—to a major drug investigation which comes to trial this week. They've also complained about the team's poor play and the inaccessibility of the stadium. "They're just looking for an excuse not to come," said Madlock. "They fill the place for the Steelers." A crowd of 31,384 did show up for Ballot by the Ballpark Day in June, a promotion designed to demonstrate fan support. The fans heckled the Bucs as they lost 9-2 to the Cubs.

Pirate management has tried to rekindle interest, for instance coaxing Willie Stargell to serve as first base coach. But nothing has helped. In April the team brought back popular radio broadcaster Bob Prince after a 10-year hiatus; in June, Prince died of throat cancer. That same month the Bucs reunited their 1960 world championship team for an Old-Timers' game. Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, Elroy Face—what memories!—but the weather forecast that night called for rain. Only 10,897 showed up.

The local press has also been tough on the team. In early July the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story on Saul Lopez, a pitcher in the Pirate farm system, who had confessed to the murder of a Macon, Ga. woman. Pittsburgh general manager Joe L. Brown complained that the story was a year old. But he knows the Bucs' problems can't be blamed on reporters. "You talk to 10 people about the Pirates and you'll get 11 answers about what's wrong with them," says Brown.

What has troubled the Pirates on the field has been a combination of bad trades, slumps, disgruntlement and injuries. Last winter Harding (Pete) Peterson, then the Pittsburgh G.M., tried to add punch to a feeble-hitting but seemingly pitching-rich Pirate lineup by swapping lefthander John Tudor to the Cardinals for George Hendrick, acquiring Steve Kemp from the Yankees and signing free agent Sixto Lezcano from the Phillies. My, what a bonanza! Hendrick hit .230 with two home runs and 25 RBIs, grumbled constantly and failed to hustle. He was sent to California last month. Kemp has contributed a .237 average, two homers and 20 RBIs. Lezcano has batted .220 with three HRs and nine RBIs. Meanwhile, Tudor is 16-8 with seven shutouts and a 2.03 ERA for St. Louis, and another ex-Pirate, Lee Lacy, who became a free agent last winter, is hitting .313 for the Orioles. Peterson, understandably, is now a former general manager, having been fired May 23 with the Pirates already 11½ games out.

"Earlier in the season the team lacked competitiveness," says Brown, a former Pirate G.M. (1956-76) who came out of retirement after Peterson was axed. "There was no vitality or exuberance." There was dissension, however, and Brown moved to stop it by trading off Hendrick and veteran pitcher John Candelaria, both of whom he described as "disturbing influences." He packaged the two of them with reliever Al Holland and sent them to California in exchange for outfielder Mike Brown, 25, and pitcher Pat Clements, 23. "You're going to be my guest in October when the Angels are in the World Series," a delighted Hendrick told him.

But that trade hasn't improved the disappointing play of Pittsburgh's other starters. All-Star caliber second baseman Johnny Ray, hampered lately by a groin pull, is hitting just .263, nearly 50 points below his .312 mark of last year. Centerfielder Marvell Wynne, another young cornerstone of the franchise, has spent a month on the DL with sprains of both ankles; at .209 he's hitting less than some of the Pirate pitchers, one of whom is Jim Winn. Both are funny names to have on these Pirates.

The pitching staff, tops in the league in ERA in 1984 (3.11) despite the BUGS' last-place (75-87) finish, has faltered badly. Only one pitcher, Rick Reuschel, has a winning record (10-7) and some have spectacular losing marks—Lee Tunnell is 1-9 and Jose DeLeon is 2-15.

To be sure, this is not the worst Pittsburgh team ever. That honor goes to the legendary 1890 club, which was depleted by defections to a short-lived rival circuit called the Players League. That team lost 23 straight at one point—including three in one day against Brooklyn—and finished 23-113, a hefty 66½ games out. The club was so bad it drew 17 for one game.

The Bucs of the early and mid-1950s were nearly as horrible, especially the 1952 team led by Kiner, Groat, Gus Bell and Joe Garagiola, which seems to have produced more TV announcers than victories and finished 42-112, a whopping 54½ games out. But from those lean years came the core of the 1960 world champions. "I see all sorts of similarities between those teams and this one," says Pirate coach Bob Skinner, a rookie on the 1954 Pittsburgh team that went 53-101 to end up in last place, 44 games back. "We were very young players straight out of the farm system. A lot of us got to the major leagues prematurely because of the direction the club was trying to take. The situation is very similar now. We're using players who are learning as they're playing, which is a hard way to do it."

The Bucs were actually showing signs of progress on the field before last week. Then they went to Atlanta to play the floundering Braves, winners of just one game in their last 13. Atlanta promptly swept a three-game set, taking two of the games in the last of the ninth. "It was amazing," said Mike Brown, shaking his head. "They were getting all these dink hits and luck." But that's the story of this year's Pirates. The Bucs traveled to Cincinnati on Thursday and by Friday had stretched their scoreless streak to 21 consecutive innings. Friday's 1-0 defeat was another decided in the bottom of the ninth, when leftfielder Denny Gonzales tripped going for a fly ball, allowing the Reds' winning run to score from second.

The Pirates also showed their knack for killing rallies—their own, that is—in rare style. In the fourth inning of Thursday's 6-0 loss to the Reds, Pittsburgh loaded the bases with just one out, bringing to bat rookie shortstop Sammy Khalifa, believed to be the first big-leaguer ever of Egyptian descent. Khalifa, 21, who was born in Fontana, Calif., seems as American as the Red, Rose; the native Egyptian is his father, Rashad, a chemist and devout Muslim who once tutored Ahmad Rashad (then Bobby Moore) in the Islamic religion. "The guys are always asking me stuff like where's my camel," says Sammy, rolling his eyes. Since being called up from the minors June 22 to become the Bucs' sixth starting shortstop of the season, Khalifa has displayed a good arm, decent range and an adequate bat, hitting .218 with extra-base power. "He's capable of playing shortstop on a world championship team," says manager Chuck Tanner.

Here Khalifa lofted a fly to Dave Parker in rightfield. Brown, on third base, tagged up and tried to score. Parker answered with one of his patented Cobra throws, which Reds catcher Bo Diaz snared two steps up the third-base line. Diaz swung around and caught Brown—who hadn't started to slide—with a mighty uppercut tag to the chin. Brown dropped like a stone. End of rally.

Fortunately for the Bucs, they're in the hands of the ever-sunny Tanner, a bastion of patience who wears a little gold ATTITUDE pin on his cap. "You don't look at this as a tough year," Tanner says brightly. "You look at it as a year when you have to regroup. We're a young team, just a couple players away from being a contender. We could be there by '87." Of course, the Pirates could be anywhere by 1987, including Denver, Tampa or Washington, D.C.

Tanner himself heads up one of the groups interested in buying the team. A lifelong resident of the Pittsburgh area, he is not put off by its declining population or economic hard times. "This is not something I would normally do," he says. "But these aren't normal circumstances."

Sometime this week, the Pirates will suffer their 88th defeat of the season and officially become the losingest Pittsburgh team in 22 years. No parade is scheduled. At their current pace, they will finish the year with a record of 51-111, the worst by any big league team since the 1965 Mets. Yet young players like Khalifa and outfielder Joe Orsulak, the NL's top-hitting rookie (.283), see reason to hope. This is their chance to prove themselves. They certainly don't complain, as Candelaria once did, about minor matters like taking cheap commercial flights.

"In California they put us on charters and fed us crab legs," says Brown, who has hit .346 since joining the Bucs. "I'll tell you, crab legs don't mean much when you aren't playing. I'm very, very happy to have this opportunity."

"We're just having a bad-season like any other club can have," says Stargell, ever the leader. "As long as everyone keeps rowing the boat, we'll keep going until we see land." Land? Ho.

PHOTOTONY TOMSICThe Bucs resemble Keystone Kops, but Tanner's attitude is filled with patience.PHOTOMANNY MILLAN[See caption above.]PHOTOTONY TOMSICSign of hard times: a slew of good seats without sittees at a Sunday doubleheader.PHOTOTONY TOMSICThe Pirates lead the majors in losses, but two of them almost spell victory.PHOTOTONY TOMSICExcitement is rarely Coach Skinner's lot.PHOTOTONY TOMSICPops Stargell is back at first, but unfortunately, he's coaching there, not playing.PHOTORED MORGANThe Galbreaths in triumph: patriarch John (center) and Dan (left) at the Flamingo.