When lefthander Neal Heaton of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitched seven innings in the rain at Three Rivers Stadium last Saturday night, he reached back for the hottest new pitch in baseball. Three times he needed a ground ball double play to extricate himself from trouble against the Houston Astros, and three times he summoned his screw-knuckle-change to get one.
Heaton's curious pitch has drastically altered his fortunes, not to mention how it has helped turn around those of the Bucs. After a 61-83 career record in eight big league seasons, at week's end Heaton was off to a 6-0 start—including the 3-1 Pittsburgh victory on Saturday—the best for a Pirate pitcher since Burleigh Grimes went 10-0 to open the 1929 season. What's more, Pittsburgh's 22-9 start and 4½-game lead in the National League East were calling up happy echoes of other Pirates past.
A slugging trio of outfielders brings to mind the Lumber Company of 1971, and a fun-loving clubhouse draws comparisons to the shimmying Fam-i-lee of '79. Although disco is dead, these Bucs have latched on to the craze of the times—pizza-chomping terrapins.
But what really has Iron City drinkers swiveling on their bar stools are the flashbacks to the 1960 Pirates. A 30th anniversary celebration of that world championship season will be held June 16 at Three Rivers, and The Pittsburgh Press is running a day-to-day recap of the year. There are parallels between the '60 and '90 teams, from MVP-caliber rightfielders (Roberto Clemente then, Bobby Bonilla now) to catchers called Smoky (Burgess) and Spanky (Mike LaValliere) to gifted centerfielders wearing No. 18 (Bill Virdon, Andy Van Slyke). Most of all, after contending in '58, the Bucs stumbled the next season only to make a few key deals, get off to a quick start and rediscover a knack for winning in '60.
Thus far, the same can be said of the 1990 Pirates, who are following manager Jim Leyland's credo: "When you've got a team that's not a powerhouse, a good club that's not outstanding, there's a chance for everyone to be a hero." Last Friday, it was righthander Doug Drabek, who pitched a five-hitter against Houston in a 4-3 win that raised his record to 6-1. It was Heaton's turn on Saturday, then righthander Bob Walk pitched seven innings, allowed five hits and matched his career-high of eight strikeouts in a 5-1 victory on Sunday.
Pittsburgh had won 18 of its last 22 games and was off to its hottest getaway since a 22-8 start in 1977. "I think we're a good club," says reserve outfielder R.J. Reynolds. "And if we don't get hurt, we're a great club."
At this time last year the Pirates were limping and lost, 14-19 on their way to a 74-88 record and fifth place in the National League East. The injury report in April 1989: bullpen stopper Jim Gott, right elbow surgery, out for the season (and now with the Los Angeles Dodgers); first baseman Sid Bream, right knee surgery, out for the year; LaValliere, left knee surgery, out for three months; Van Slyke, strained muscle, out for a month. There had been a hint of the coming misfortunes in spring training when pitcher Brian Fisher suffered a 10-inch gash in his left arm while playing miniature golf; he leaned on a putter, and it snapped in two. Fisher appeared in only nine games in '89 and has since been released.
For the season, injuries cost the Pirates nearly 600 man-games, more than their total for the three previous years, during which Leyland had forged a hapless club into a contender. Last season coach Gene Lamont even began posting the lineup card upside down in the dugout, hoping to reverse the Bucs' run of bad luck.
Friends call Leyland "Humperdinck" because of his humpty-dumpty style of hitting as a minor league catcher and his Engelbert-like tenor on bus rides in the minors, and in 1989 he could have crooned There Goes My Everything on a daily basis. "Last year was the toughest one I've spent in baseball," says Leyland. "I couldn't camouflage my feelings. In 10 days we lost four key players. It wasn't that I didn't like what was here, but when the team that was supposed to be here wasn't here, it was tough. It was like it took the heart and soul out of me."
The 45-year-old Leyland gave up coffee and a 20-year cigarette habit in the off-season—he puffs on cigars now—as an exercise in self-control. Meanwhile the Pirate front office added depth to the roster. General manager Larry Doughty traded pitchers Jeff Robinson and Willie Smith to the Yankees for catcher Don Slaught, who at week's end was hitting .391 platooning against lefthanders. Three free agents were signed: infielder Wally Backman (.310), starting pitcher Walt Terrell (1-1, with a 4.25 ERA), reliever Ted Power (three saves, 3.14 ERA). Says Doughty, "We felt going in we needed at least two players at each position. My own opinion is we have the best bench in baseball. Certainly we have the highest-paid."
The revamped Bucs were put to an early road test, a five-city swing to the West—13 games in 14 days—that clearly brought them together. Before the first game of the trip, on April 19 in St. Louis, reserve outfielder John Cangelosi tacked up a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle poster above LaValliere's locker. "He looks like one," Cangelosi explained. "All you would have to do is paint him green." The hanging of Michaelangelo has been cited as an inspiration for the Pirates' 10-3 record on the trip, though Van Slyke is reluctant to credit cowabunga fever as the main factor. "There's no question in my mind it was the meal money," Van Slyke says, pointing to the Pirates' mass consumption of pizza as also being a plus. "When you hand a player $800 in meal money [big leaguers get their per diem of $54 for an entire trip before hitting the road], he's capable of doing things he's never done before."
The Bucs really earned their lunch money. In the 13 games, Leyland used 11 different lineups, the platoon players batted .314, and the bullpen, with three saves from stopper Bill Landrum, helped Pittsburgh go 4-0 in one-run games. Landrum, 31, has gone from a two-time minor league discard to an ace in less than a season. Called on to replace Gott as the stopper last season, Landrum has been bolstered by the confidence Leyland instilled in him and by a circle changeup he has added to complement his fastball. Last week, before Pittsburgh split a pair of home games with the West Division-leading Cincinnati Reds, Landrum flatly stated that the Pirates' bullpen—which includes five other relievers, among them lefty Scott Ruskin, a converted outfielder—was superior to the Reds' vaunted Nasty Boys. The numbers back him up: Pittsburgh's ERA in relief was 1.92 at week's end, Cincinnati's was 2.59.
In truth, the Bucs' relief corps is probably better in its sum than in its parts. Leyland is skilled at blending disparate styles, a technique he learned from Oakland A's manager Tony La Russa when La Russa was managing the Chicago White Sox and Leyland was his third-base coach. "A lot of managers are afraid of not putting their best out there every day, then they say, 'Gee, if our staff had held together for 162 games, we could have won,' " says pitching coach Ray Miller. "I've been with Earl Weaver, and he's a genius, but Jim does all things just as well."
Backman also appreciates Leyland's skill at deploying his nonpitchers, citing it as one of the primary reasons he chose to sign with the Bucs. "He's the type of guy everyone wants to play for but few are fortunate enough to get to," Backman says. "He gets guys to accept their roles and be ready to play." Even if it meant switching from second base to third, Backman also wanted to return to the National League, where he enlivened the Mets in their 1986 championship season before being peddled to the Twins two years later.
"The American League is a lot different," Backman says. "In Minnesota, I threw things in anger and was told, 'That's not the way we play here.' I thought, then what the hell was I doing there?"
Since arriving at Three Rivers, Backman has fired up the Pirates in ways reminiscent of third baseman Don (Tiger) Hoak in 1960. He pitches helmet-slamming fits in the dugout and tosses his body around on the field. Says Van Slyke, the only Buc besides Backman with playoff experience, "I may be the manager of the Bates Motel, but I'm not the only one checking in on this club." Backman has led with his bat, including a 6-for-6 night in a 9-4 win at San Diego on April 27. Says Leyland, "He doesn't give an at bat away, and that rubs off on the club." Backman has also been a leader with his wallet. When Mike Roesler earned his first major league victory, in Chicago on April 20, Backman sent out for a $100 bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate.
The acquisition of Backman has had a twofold effect on Leyland's lineup card: It has allowed power-hitting leftfielder Barry Bonds to switch occasionally from lead-off to the fifth spot and Bonilla to move from third base to rightfield. The 6'3", 230-pound Bonilla broke in with the Pirates as an outfielder in 1986 but subsequently was asked to fill a gaping hole at third base. Learning the position on the job, he committed 67 errors in the past two years. Still, he never lost his glowing smile or exuberance for the game. "I don't think anyone plays harder than he does," Backman says.
While he was struggling in the field, Bonilla remained solid at the plate, averaging 24 home runs and 93 RBIs in 1988 and '89. Through Sunday he was tied for the league lead with eight homers, was third in RBIs with 25 and had a shot at becoming the first switch-hitter to lead the National League in dingers since Ripper Collins in 1934. "The more numbers you have put up before," Bonilla says, "the more things you realize you can do."
They still have to prove themselves over the long haul, but Pittsburgh's starting outfielders, Bonds, Van Slyke and Bonilla, were batting .306 and conjuring up images of the 1971 trio of Willie Stargell, Al Oliver and Clemente. "With Bobby Bo batting fourth and me fifth, one of us is going to be MVP," says Bonds, who after Sunday's 5-1 defeat of the Astros that completed a series sweep was hitting .333 with a .604 slugging percentage.
The Pirate pitching staff, meanwhile, has been brilliant; at week's end its ERA was a league-low 2.61. Drabek, a right-handed sinkerball specialist who usually doesn't find his groove until after the All-Star break, was at 2.36, and lefty John Smiley was 3-3 with 3.18. And then there's Heaton, whom Doughty re-signed at $3.3 million for three years. The move was not cause for partying along the Monongahela; one local wag wrote that Pittsburgh's rotation, after Drabek and Smiley, "wouldn't scare a lineup of [Rafael] Belliards." Besides having a career record that was 22 games under .500, Heaton had developed a reputation for taking early showers, having completed only 22 games in 177 major league starts. "People said, 'Can't you find somebody better than Neal Heaton?' " Leyland says. "Hell, no. He's lefthanded, and he throws hard. Baseball people know the value of that."
Known as Heater as much for his reliance on his fastball as for his surname, Heaton was fooling around in the bullpen in spring training when he tried a grip that wedged the ball between the knuckles of his stubby fingers. The pitch, as he threw it, broke down and in to righthanded hitters, and was off-speed without slowing his arm speed. With the birth of the screw-knuckle-change, Heaton has gone from Heater to hot. Along with his unblemished record after six starts, he had a 2.11 ERA and had lasted from five to 7⅖ innings. Dating back to last July 28, Heaton had won his last 11 decisions. "He's excited about coming to the park, because the league has to adjust to [his new pitch]," Miller says. "He's like a kid with a pacifier in his pocket."
Thirty years ago, when the Pirates were winning a world championship, Heaton was a kid with a pacifier. Now the Bucs are setting themselves up for another big leap in one year's time. Leyland, however, isn't ready to make any comparisons between his 1990 team and the '60 Bucs. "Do I think we're a good team? Yes," he says. "Do I think anything other than that? No. Am I excited? Yeah."