The FAM-I-LEE beats the O's

The FAM-I-LEE beats the O's

The FAM-I-LEE beats the O's


The 1979 baseball post-season turned out to be e playground for Willie Stargell, who hoisted the Bucs on his broad shoulders and carried them to a World Series title over a favored Orioles team built on pitching, of course.

When you look at images of baseball from the Sixties, you can see the colors, but somehow it seems as if everything should still be in black and white — the colors are grainy, washed out, a little bit unreal. But, when you look at images from the Seventies, you just can’t imagine the same images in black and white and shades of gray. They simply wouldn’t translate. The Seventies were meant for color; meant for the colorful baseball lives unleashed by Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, for the millions of fans lounging in front of Color TV. And, of course, there was that most significant color — green. The unnatural green of the Astroturf, the unimaginable flood of green free agency dollars.

And the Seventies featured new colors, too, new team colors, as the league expanded into Milwaukee and Arlington, Toronto and Seattle, as the league gained prominence in Houston and Kansas City, Anaheim and Montreal. Suddenly every color in the rainbow was being claimed by a new city, for a new team — every color but teal and purple, that is. We’d have to wait until the Nineties for those.

But this was the Seventies, the last hurrah before the excesses of the Eighties; before the snow-white cocaine, the robin’s-egg-blue double-knits, before the salaries so huge they could’ve paid for space-missions only twenty-years prior. The Seventies started with color—with the dizzying green and gold of the A’s, moving through the simple, unstoppable Big Red Machine, and the Seventies ended with the clashing colors of the 1979 World Series: bright Pirate Yellow and vivid Oriole Orange.

Prelude: The Regular Season

Like any Earl Weaver team, the Orioles were built on pitching, defense, and the three-run homer. The Orioles led the American League in ERA, wins, and WHIP, while they didn’t even crack the top ten in batting average. Offensively they were led by Ken Singleton, who finished fifth in the AL in OPS. The pitching staff was led by 23 game winner Mike Flanagan, who brought home the Cy Young Award, though he wasn’t a whole lot better than his colleagues. Scott McGregor and Dennis Martinez put fantastic numbers up, and the bullpen was by far the best in the league. Don Stanhouse saved 21 and Tippy Martinez won 10 games in relief. Offensively, outside of Singleton, the team was mainly adequate. Eddie Murray, the second-best hitter on the team, was (shockingly) already in his third full season at the tender age of 23, but he wasn’t yet the player who would terrify AL pitchers all throughout the Eighties. Other than Murray and Singleton, the player who had the biggest impact was probably another youngster, 24-year old Gary Roenicke, who had a career year in 1979. Weaver won Manager of The Year in 1979, and if you look at any of his successful teams, you will find someone like this - someone putting up unlikely numbers, and executing in clutch moments. He just had a way of finding what someone could do, then making sure he had an opportunity to do it.

The Pirates, who had finished second in each of the three previous years, were ready to break through. They were a balanced, terrifying team, finishing first in runs scored per game, and third in ERA. Offensively, the team was built around Dave Parker, though the importance of mid-season pick up Bill Madlock, who led the team in AVG and OBP, cannot be overstated. The team also had a fantastic table-setter in Omar Moreno, who (despite his pathetic .333 OBP) led the team in hits, runs scored, and stolen bases. And then there was Willie Stargell, who shared the NL MVP with Keith Hernandez, despite not appearing at the top of any of the offensive leaderboards. Other players may have had better numbers, but Stargell carried the team whenever necessary, and for once the voters recognized this characteristic as “most valuable.“ The Pirate pitching staff was so well rounded that six pitchers had 10 or more wins, although no one pitcher had more than 14. Bert Blyleven was the ace of the staff, but for a number two pitcher, the Pirates had a three-headed monster; Jim Bibby, John Candelaria, and Bruce Kison were all good enough to be any other teams number two starter. The star of the pitching staff was the inimitable Kent Tekulve, who was overused (appearing in a ML-leading 94 games) yet put up an ERA of 2.85, good for third in the league.

Prelude: The Post-season

Neither team was tremendously challenged in the championship series, although they played a lot of extra-inning games. The Pirates swept the Reds, winning the first game on Willie Stargell’s heroic, 3-run, 11th inning blast, winning in the 10th of game two, and coasting from there. The Orioles defeated the Angels in similar fashion, winning the first game on John Lowenstein’s 10th inning home run, and then staving off the Angels, three games to one.

The World Series: Games 1-6

It’s an old saw of mine, but I’ll bring it out again: postseason games should not be played in winter. The ‘79 Series was early evidence of this, as the first five games were all seriously altered by the weather. For the first game in Baltimore the temperature was in the thirties, and it had snowed most of the morning. The second game was delayed by icy rain. Game Three was suspended by rain, and game four (the only day game) was also played in below-freezing windchills. And the players suffered. There were six errors in the icy first game, and one pitcher (Pirate Bruce Kison) blew his arm out in the cold. The Orioles won the first one, 5-4.

The second, rain-delayed, game, was a Jim Palmer gem, and Eddie Murray’s home-run and RBI double were nearly enough to make Palmer’s efforts stand up. But, a ninth-inning, pinch-hit single by Manny Sanguillen scored catcher Ed Ott (do I need to mention, he was slow?) all the way from second to win the game. In the eighth, Earl Weaver had a chance to bunt and play for the one run that might win the game, but he didn’t do it. Weaver didn’t like to bunt, but with home field advantage, it was probably the correct play. Weaver, in his typical style, merely told the post-game reporters that he didn’t bunt because, “It isn’t my style.“ Well, losing ain’t your style, either, Earl.

In Game Three, Weaver made up for it. He reached into his grab-bag of line-up changes, and decided to start an all right-handed nine against Pirate lefty John Candelaria. It worked. Kiko Garcia, in for glove-man Mark Belanger, got four hits, including a crucial run-scoring triple. Benny Ayala, who only played in 34 games during the regular season, hit the deciding blow—a two-run homer off the Candy Man.

In Game Four, Weaver topped himself. The Pirates were holding onto a 6-3 lead in the eighth when Weaver made his move. He came up with back-to-back-to-back lefty pinch-hitters to knock out relief ace Kent Tekulve. Tekulve, with his gravedigger frame and submarine motion, was one of the big stars of the series. He appeared in 5 of the 7 games, and tallied a record three saves, but Weaver figured out a way to attack him, and the O’s scored six to win the game, taking a 3-1 lead in the Series.

Only three teams had ever come back from such a deficit, but this is where the national media really turned on the heat: WE ARE FAMILY! It was a song we’d heard coming from the Pirate locker room late in the season, and again in the postseason, but it began to take on new meaning now that the Pirates were a game away from elimination. It was an anthem. WE ARE FAMILY!, screamed Sister Sledge, from every jukebox in Pittsburgh, from every car radio in Pennsylvania. We’re family, and blood is thicker than all this. Don’t count us out. The Orioles were confident, though: they had their best pitchers lined up for the final three games, while (with the injury to Kison) the Pirates were suddenly strapped for pitching.

It was 37 year-old lefty Jim Rooker, who won a whopping 4 games during the season, who came on to start Game Five, and he threw BB’s, retiring 12 of the first 13 he faced. He ran out of gas in the sixth, and passed the baton to Bert Blyleven. Including the postseason, Blyleven pitched in a total of 690 games, and he only came out of the bullpen in 8 of these. It had been 10 years since he had come out of the bullpen, so it goes with out saying he wasn’t quite used to the sensation, but if he was nervous, it didn’t show. He allowed three hits, and no runs, to take the win.

The volume got louder: WE ARE FA-MILY!, DA-DA-DA-DA-DEEE-DEEE, during every TV promo and interview that was broadcast during the travel day between games five and six. “We Are Family…I got all my somethings and me.“ It was a catchy, silly tune, and above it all, standing dignified in front of the microphones was Willie Stargell. If anyone could bring a team back from a 3-1 hole, it was Stargell. Stargell explained, in the type of voice you’d follow anywhere, that his team had already knocked 61 base hits in the series, an average of better than 12 per game. He said, to all the doubters of his “family”, we can hit, and if the weather cooperates, and we get some pitching, we’ll be just fine.

And it happened just like Stargell said it would. The victims from Games 3 and 4, John Candelaria and Kent Tekulve, came back to show the form that they maintained all year long. Candy, on three days rest, shut the Orioles down for 6 innings. He didn’t allow a run. Tekulve came on in the 7th, and he retired the last 12 batters he faced in succession to preserve the shut out. Thank you, goodnight, drive home safely.

The Ultimate Game™

There is only one story to Game Seven — though by the time the late innings roll around there are a number of story lines. Line A: Scotty McGregor of the Orioles has pitched one of the best games of his life, while the Pirates are already, desperately, on their third pitcher — Jim Bibby started, then Don Robinson took the hill, and now Grant Jackson is in. But, in the bullpen there is always Tekulve. Line B: Rich Dauer, a two-fifty-something hitter, is the Baltimore hero by knocking an unlikely third-inning home run. He only hit 9 all season. Line C (a sub-storyline to line A): By the time the sixth inning rolls around, McGregor has only allowed three hits. He looks like he’s got what it takes to make storyline B hold up. In this last storyline, there’s a hint of The Story: of the three hits, two came off the bat of Willie Stargell.

The Story. It’s quick, and simple…it’s the type of story that young men dream about, and maybe old men too. It always begins like this: Game Seven of the World Series…and it ends, for most of us, in a good night’s sleep.

Eight years earlier, in the 1971 postseason, Stargell had suffered mightily. He didn’t get a single hit in the playoffs, and only hit .208 in the the Series, and he probably didn’t get much rest on the nights he thought about the postseason.

But now it’s Game Seven. And he’s Pops. He’s the leader. And it’s clear that, if he doesn’t do it, no one will. Bill Robinson came through with a one-out hit in the sixth, bringing up Stargell with a base runner on. Pops had already accounted for half of the Pirate hits, knocking a single and a double, so the Baltimore fans must have been holding their breath…they knew all about storylines A, B, and C…but they too had trouble sleeping sometimes. They too knew the story that begins: It was Game Seven of the World Series…

Only, in their dreams, Willie Stargell never appeared. Their dreams starred Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson. In their dreams, Willie Stargell never showed up, out of nowhere, wearing the colors of the wrong team. He certainly never came up with a runner on base. He never came up with the Orioles leading by only one run. Willie Stargell never, ever, in all the dreams of all the nights of Baltimore, knocked a homer over the right-field fence to send them back out into the cold, wet world of the offseason.

Of course, it wasn’t a dream, for any of us. For Willie, and all of Pittsburgh, it was a dream come true specifically because it was no dream at all. There was never a bit of doubt that Stargell’s shot would clear the fence. In a way, it wasn’t even that surprising. In 1979, there was nothing Willie Stargell couldn’t do.

Right fielder Dave Parker was one of the big bats in the Pirate lineup in 1979.

With their backs against the wall (again), the 1979 Pirates climbed on the back of their aging leader and stunned the Orioles.


By The Baseball Page
Tuesday, 15 Mar 2011

The Baseball Book


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