Every baseball fan can recall a special year in their lives. One memorable season that stood out as the year it all came together for your favorite team. What was yours?
Mine was 1979. For a Valley boy who already eschewed the Dodgers, it would be natural for a Steelers fan to embrace the other tenant of Three Rivers Stadium: the Pirates. Yet, there was no one on all sides of my family who lived in Pittsburgh. The closest anyone lived in the area was my mother and my grandparents. The Blooms lived in Cincinnati, one of the Pirates fiercest rivals. And, I have never been to Pittsburgh. That wasn’t until 1996, mind you.
Why the Pirates? Was it their uniforms? It may have something to do with it. Consider that they were ahead of their time with 18 different combinations between two caps, three jerseys and three pants. The Gallbreaths, who owned the team during this time, threw the idea of a home jersey out the window.
It was more than just their uniforms. It was a collection of talent that I had the utmost respect and admiration for. Baseball fans knew how good Willie Stargell was. He still had power, but he was aging. In 1979, he became the ringleader of this motley crew known as the “Battling Bucs.” Just like Stargell, Dave Parker was a product of the Pirates farm system. The Most Valuable Player for the National League in 1978, Parker had immense power and played awesome defense from right field. Veteran slugger Bill Madlock complimented them with his own steady performance throughout 1979.
While the longball played prominently in the Pirates game plan, their pitching helped out tremendously. Jerry Reuss, Don Robinson, John Candelaria, Jim Rooker and Jim Bibby joined veteran Bert Blyleven to create a tough starting rotation that made opponents cower. Perhaps the crowning touch was a bespeckled, meek-looking closer with a wicked sidearm delivery. Kent Tekulve was the ultimate closer in the game during 1979.
If the pitching or the longball didn’t win for the Bucs, speed killed the competition. Omar Moreno was the speediest in the National League as he was among the stolen base leaders in baseball in 1979. If it wasn’t speed, then it was tenacious fielding as exemplified by Phil Garner, who platooned at both second base and shortstop.
In the middle of all of this was Chuck Tanner. The Pirates manager was part of a generation of managers who changed with the times and the style of play in the 1970’s. They were part old-time baseballers who were able to adapt to a leaner, faster game. They also came out of the integration of the game by Jackie Robinson and knew how to manage a diverse group of talent. Tanner was the perfect manager for this Pirates squad.
The Pirates had everyone on the edge of their seats in 1978 when they came from 15-1/2 games behind only to come close to knocking off the Philadelphia Phillies for the National League East title. However, the baseball critics were pretty skeptical about the Pirates chances of winning the division in 1979.
I knew the Bucs had the stuff of winners, so I followed them since Opening Day. As I graduated junior high, my mom treated me to two baseball games: the following Sunday at Dodger Stadium and the Wednesday afterwards at Candlestick Park with my dad. The opponents for both games? The Pirates, of course!
In mid-June the Bucs were on a critical West Coast swing where they were on a massive winning streak. After sweeping the Padres in San Diego, the Bucs came to Chavez Ravine and continued their domination over the defending National League champions. It was also Camera Day at Dodger Stadium and I got plenty of autographs and pictures. One was with Blyleven, who is now the color commentator on the Twins television broadcasts. On a cool, cloudy Sunday, the Bucs won completing their sweep of the Dodgers. I was on a plane to San Francisco the next morning.
My father never liked baseball. In fact, he had a heart attack the only time we were at Dodger Stadium as a family. As part of my visit with him in the Bay Area, he complied with my request to come with me on my first visit to Candlestick (now Monster) Park to see the Pirates beat the Giants on a sunny Businessman’s Special matinee, completing a West Coast road sweep.
When the All-Star Break came to Seattle, everyone wondered what kind of game the Pirates all-stars would bring to the Kingdome. As soon as the American Leaguers started hitting towards right, Parker was there. So was his arm. That mid-summer evening, Parker made some impressive throws to get runners out at third base during one inning and at home later in the game. He snagged the MVP award for the all-star game.
After the break, the Bucs were watched closely. They took the division handily and had an easy time in the National League Championship Series by sweeping the Cincinnati Reds. The World Series was a different story.
On paper, the Baltimore Orioles looked better than the Pirates. They were a group of veterans who had Series experience along with some of the better young players in the game. After dispatching the California Angels in the American League Championship Series, the O’s opened up the 1979 World Series at old Memorial Stadium. Both games were close; where the Orioles took Game 1 while the Pirates surprised the hometown crowd by taking the second game. For those who thought it was going to be a cakewalk for the O’s were completely taken by surprise. For those of us who followed the Bucs all season long, winning one game in Baltimore before coming back to Pittsburgh was not unusual to accomplish.
When they returned to Three Rivers Stadium, the home crowd was amped. Stargell had a great idea to get the crowd pumping. Disco was waning, but one song would get 50,000 people dancing for the Bucs: Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” This song epitomized the Pirates. Stargell as “Pops” was the center of the “family” and everyone played together as one. To the beat of disco, one that was the anthem for the entire season, the Battling Bucs could do no wrong.
However, Games 3 and 4 became nightmares for the Pirates. In front of their home crowd, the Pirates seemed to almost concede the Series to the Orioles. Baltimore was up 3-1. No one in World Series history at this point has ever came back to take the series from such a deficit.
On Sunday, Game 5 at Three Rivers Stadium, Jim Rooker took matters into his own hands. He faced Orioles ace Mike Flannigan, which turned out to be the turning point of the series for the Bucs. While Rooker allowed only one Oriole run, the Bucs bats knocked around the best pitcher on the Baltimore staff for seven runs. Bert Blyleven closed out the game and quieted the O’s for good. With that key victory, the Pirates had to return back to Baltimore with hopes in accomplishing the impossible.
On a cold Tuesday night in October, the fans in Memorial Stadium were waiting for a coronation. What was supposed to be a celebration of the Orioles first World Championship since 1970, and retribution for their Series loss in 1971 to the Pirates, turned Game 6 into a dogfight. John Candelaria had his ups-and-downs for the season, but he laid everything on the line for a match-up with perennial Orioles ace Jim Palmer.
After six innings, no one scored and the Baltimore faithful were getting restless. Finally, Palmer took the brunt of the seventh and eighth inning hitting spree that yielded four runs by the Bucs. In turn, Kent Tekulve was brought in to pitch the last three innings against the O’s. Between Candy and Tek, the O’s were shut out of their chance to close the Series, forcing Game 7.
Earl Weaver’s team was backed into a wall. In the other clubhouse, a nervous Chuck Tanner wondered if game seven would be worth it. The only confident person in the room was Willie Stargell. “Pops” believed that the impossible was indeed possible. They faced another chilly Baltimore night in the old horseshoe on the No
rth Side and a packed house of 52,000-plus Oriole partisans. This Series was about unlikely heroes, including veteran catcher Manny Sanguillen, who robbed the O’s in Game 2 with his key RBI. Sanguillen played alongside Stargell in the last World Series for the Bucs in 1971. Perhaps their old long lost teammate was sending angels down that night. When you talk about the history of this team, one cannot ignore the contributions of Roberto Clemente. That night, Clemente must’ve been singing backup with Sister Sledge.
Though it was not the most remarkable Seventh Game in World Series history, all it took was the bat of Willie Stargell, elected the Most Valuable Player for the Series and the eventual National League’s Most Valuable Player for 1979, to seal the deal for the Battling Bucs. In the end, the wiry, bespeckled sidearmer would put the 1979 season to an end. Kent Tekulve stood on the mound in the yellow jersey and the trademark black pillbox cap full of “Stargell Stars” in the bottom of the ninth ready to put a punctuation point to this dream season.
Although Pittsburgh truly belonged to the Steelers, deep down inside the hearts of Western Pennsylvania were always rooting for the Pirates. The late 1970’s put this rusting city on the map and paved its way for a renaissance. Just like the region’s quarterbacks, the 1979 Pirates have become part of the lore of the land where the Ohio River splits into the Allegheny and the Monghahelia.
Subsequent Pirate teams never matched the promise of this era. The Jim Leyland-led division champs of the early 1990’s, laden with the bats Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, never matched the swagger of that 1979 team. After Dave Parker was snapped up as a Free Agent by the Reds, the Pirates just languished in the 1980’s. Stargell returned before the end of the decade and was enshrined in the Basbeall Hall of Fame. Pops died in 2001. It was one of the saddest days in my life seeing one of my biggest heroes of my childhood passing away.
This is perhaps why I use the 1979 Pirates team as a benchmark for any subsequent teams that fall into my radar. The impact that team made at the right time in my life was incredible. To me, that’s a team. Athletes were characters thrown together into clubhouse sharing only a common goal: a championship. Whether they succeeded or failed in pursuit of that goal, you always remember the personalities and the atmosphere of that clubhouse.