My childhood friend Jim Baker always said that I was crying when I approached him with the news. I believe it was New Years Day in 1972 and Roberto Clemente, my favorite baseball player, had died. I was eight-years-old when I heard the news and Baker always swore that I came and knocked on his door the following morning and was crying when I told him. I don’t think tears were actually streaming down my face but who knows, I did love baseball and Clemente, and I especially loved the Pittsburgh Pirates.
I don’t know how it came to be that the Pirates became my favorite baseball
team. I never lived in Pittsburgh, have never even been there, in fact. I grew
up about an hour outside of Philadelphia so everyone in my area loved the
Phillies, but not me.
For me it was all about the yellow and black.
After Clemente died I needed a new favorite baseball player, so it became Willie
Stargell. I think he looked cool on the 1972 Topps baseball card, so I
couldn’t wait for the occasional televised Pirates game to see how many homers
Pops would blast out of the park.
The Pirates had a good team back in the 70’s but 1979 was the year!
They were managed by Chuck Tanner and were solid all the way
around. They had the power in Stargell (32 homers that year) and outfielders Dave
Parker (25 HR) and Bill Robinson (24 HR) and John
“The Hammer” Milner (16 HR coming off the bench). Plus they had a
fairly strong pitching staff with leaders John Candelaria
(14-9, 3.22 ERA), Bert Blyleven (12-5, 3.60 ERA), and Bruce
Kison (13-7, 3.19 ERA) and of course, one of the best (and skinniest)
closers ever, Kent Tekulve (31 saves, 2.75 ERA) and other
bullpen ace Grant Jackson (14 saves, 2.96 ERA). So they had
talent but no real superduper stars. In addition to the above they had Ed
Ott (catcher), Bill “Maddog” Madlock (2nd/3rd), Phil
“Scrappy” Garner (2nd/3rd), plus Rennie Stennett, Tim
Foli, Omar Moreno, etc.
Through lots of hard work they finished 98-64, enough for them to win 1st
place in the Eastern Division and go on to play (and sweep) the Cincinnati Reds
in the NL Championship Series and then, before beating the Baltimore Orioles in
seven games in the World Series. The decisive game 7 was on October 17th in
Baltimore, the Pirates winning 4-1 on a Stargell homer. Stargell was nicknamed
“Pops” for being the well-respected old-timer (and guiding light) of the
line-up, and he was named the series MVP. The team adopted the hit song by Sister
Sledge, “We Are Family” as their own (as corny as that sounds now I,
as a 15-year-old, got swept up in “We Are Family” mania too) and I was riding
the crest of the team’s success. Buying all the gear, bragging to my friends,
and dreaming of one day when I would be a player on the Pittsburgh Pirates just
like my hero, Willie Stargell...
…and that was it. The following year Stargell’s (and many others) production
dropped off considerably (Stargell retired in 1982 after struggling badly for
his three final seasons) and the team finished 3rd in the eastern division with
a 83-79 record. The team has struggled for a long time, and even though I still
consider them my favorite team I haven’t followed them for years (part of that
being that I have lived on the west coast for the past 13 years). But I’ll
always remember that magical year of 1979 when, for once, I could say that my
favorite baseball team were the best in the world.
Tim Hinely has been publishing his own ’zine,
Dagger, for 18 years. To see a copy drop him a line at: P.O Box 820102,
Portland, OR 97282-1102 or via email at email@example.com.