You've heard of the mudville nine? The Pittsburgh Pirates are the Vaudeville Nine. Yes, we have no Bonilla, they'll tell you. Pirate prospects aren't merely sent to Triple A, they're shuffled off to Buffalo. Who's in first? The Pirates, who are so far out front in the National League East that it's hard to tell What's in second. I Don't Know? Third place.
The Pirates, two-time defending division champions, have the best record in baseball: 14-4 through Sunday. They've been so dominant of late that even after losing 5-4 to the Cubs on Sunday in Chicago, the manual-scoreboard operator at Wrigley Field reflexively recorded a 5-4 Pirate victory. The error remained there long after the players and spectators had departed. "How are we doing it?" asks centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, who then speaks very slowly for his thickheaded inquisitor. "We are winning...more games...than all of the other teams."
At first blush these Pirates look like the same guys who won the East last season by 14 games. The early 4½-game gap between them and the second-place New York Mets at week's end looked so large you could have driven Cecil Fielder through it. Pittsburgh has already had a nine-game winning streak this season, equal to its longest run of a year ago. Van Slyke remains the Rimshot Heard Round the World. Leftfielder Barry Bonds continues to go long, like an Oscar acceptance speech, seemingly every time he steps to the plate. Pitchers Doug Drabek (3-1), Randy Tomlin (4-0) and Zane Smith (3-1) are racking up W's like unlucky Scrabble competitors.
So why is everybody surprised by the Pirates? Because just one month ago they were applying for federal disaster-relief funds. "This spring it was like a tornado came through," says manager Jim Leyland. "We lost [Bobby] Bonilla. We lost [John] Smiley. We lost [Bob] Kipper. We lost [Bill] Landrum. We lost [Neal] Heaton. But when the wind stopped blowing and the dust cleared, we still had a lot of talent left. I told the guys that we have to focus on who is here, not on who isn't."
To understand the play-for-today attitude of those who are on the Pirates, you must first know the Who's Who of who are not: Bonilla, the All-Star rightfielder who signed a free-agent contract with the Mets in December: Kipper, the lefthanded reliever who soon thereafter signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Twins; Heaton, the lefty reliever who was dealt to Kansas City for Kirk Gibson in March; Landrum, the part-time closer who was then simply unloaded, along with his 17 saves and $1.7 million salary; and finally Smiley, the lefthanded 20-game winner headed for free agency at the end of this season, who was traded to the Twins for two young prospects.
Smile, and the world smiles with you. Trade Smiley, and the world Garden Weasels you into the ground. Or so it seemed to Ted Simmons, the ex-catcher who was named the Pirates' general manager in February and is charged with keeping the small-market team financially solvent and competitively sound at the same time. A dicey gig? "Very," says Simmons, who was previously in charge of player development for the St. Louis Cardinals. "When I interviewed for it, this position had to be perceived as...tenuous. But when you're a non-general manager and you want to be one of those 26 people, you cannot pick and choose."
In all likelihood Simmons will also have to witness the departure of Bonds, who will be eligible for free agency come October. There is not a better player in baseball. He has already hit seven home runs in 1992, and he covers leftfield like late-afternoon shadows. He has rejected a five-year, $25 million offer from Pittsburgh. He will almost certainly sign elsewhere for...what? A contract with four commas? Drabek, the 1990 Cy Young winner, will likewise become eligible for free agency at the end of the season—unless team chairman Douglas Danforth approves a reported four-year, $20 million deal that was recently hammered out between Simmons and Drabek's agents.
All of which is why it's a good thing that the Pirates are perhaps the only team in baseball whose members know that carpe diem is not the Latin phrase for "meal money." "I'm not going to look ahead to one or two years from now, because I might not be around to play then," says Van Slyke. "And you might not be around to write the story."
"It's been easy to keep my situation out of my mind," insists Drabek. "I said this spring that once the season starts, I'm not going to talk about the future. I'm not going to answer any questions about it. I'll address my situation when the time comes. But I really don't think about it." Actually it is difficult to envision Drabek playing elsewhere, if only for his remarkable facial resemblance to the Pirate in the Pirates' logo.
At the very least Drabek and Bonds will be around for the remainder of this season. Won't they? "Yes," says Simmons. "After the Smiley and Landrum scenarios this spring, I told Jim, 'O.K., now pick your club and go with it.' "
Leyland went with that club to Chicago last Friday for a weekend series against the Cubs. The Wrigley Field weather was so frigid that Ernie Banks, were he still playing, might have suggested that it was a great day to play none.
There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Pittsburgh led 3-2. Jerome Walton was on first for Chicago. Ryne Sandberg came to the plate. Walton was running with the first pitch. Leyland had called a pitchout. Walton was meat at second. Game over. Sandberg's bat was as useful as the aforementioned Garden Weasel. "I guessed." Leyland later said. "I was lucky."
Now you needn't have been paying attention last weekend to notice that 1) if recycled, Harry Caray's eyeglasses could provide enough material for three coffee tables and a bus windshield, and 2) it wasn't luck that Leyland possessed. "That takes stomach," says Simmons. "I think he's the best manager in baseball."
Which is why Leyland was given a five-year contract extension in January. He will be winning in 1997 regardless of who is on his roster. At times the roster hardly seemed to matter this season. Leyland has wrung a .529 batting average and seven RBIs out of reserve outfielder Cecil Espy, who has a lifetime average of .400 as a pinch hitter. "The big thing is to contribute whether you're out there every day or coming in to pinch-hit," Espy says. "Everybody here realizes that. That's what makes this team what it is."
And what the Pirates are on Saturday is a vaudeville act. One out. The game is scoreless in the top of the sixth. Gibson, on first, is running on the pitch to Jay Bell. Bell hits the ball behind the balding Gibson, whose helmet has fallen off behind him. The ball hits the helmet, then caroms directly to Cub second baseman Sandberg. Sandberg throws to third baseman Chico Walker, well ahead of Gibson, who has no idea what has happened. The last he could see, the ball was screaming for rightfield. Caught in a rundown, Gibson remains alive long enough for Bell to reach second. The next batter, Van Slyke, doubles Bell home for the game's only run. Pirates win 1-0.
Afterward Van Slyke plays a tape of the Gibson rundown five times on the clubhouse VCR with the volume at high decibels, delighting with everyone as WGN's Steve Stone says over and over on the TV: "The Cubs are lucky that Gibson doesn't have much hair. If he had more hair, he might have kept his helmet on."
Gibson pats his head and says, "I gotta get some Velcro. Maybe I'll just paint a helmet on." Everybody laughs, then either returns to his locker or moves toward the buffet.
These are the Pirates. Still winning. Never getting too high, never getting too low. Leave it to Van Slyke to turn that clichè into an entry for John Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. "The key is to play like Nebraska," he says. "Just as flat as you can."