Andy Van Slyke
- 1B, 3B, CF, LF, OF, RF
- December 21, 1960
- 6' 1"
- 190 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 6-17-1983 with SLN
- Allstar Selections:
- 1988 GG, 1988 SS, 1989 GG, 1990 GG, 1991 GG, 1992 GG, 1992 SS
Colorful and comedic, Andy Van Slyke’s playful nature complemented his flashy, aggressive play making him one of the most beloved Pirates of the past generation as well as one of the greatest centerfielders in Pittsburgh history. He combined outstanding natural abilities into briefly becoming a five-tool player and a leader on the excellent Pirate teams of the early 1990’s. Even with all of his other talents, speed, power, range and an excellent throwing arm, one of his greatest attributes was that he played the game hard, but his drive to win probably shortened his career as he suffered several serious injuries which in the end cost him his great abilities.
Given his fun-loving nature, it made sense that the lefthanded hitter came to the Pirates on April Fool’s Day, 1987. The trade had cost Pittsburgh fans popular Tony Pena and was not initially well received. While it was agreed Van Slyke was a top-notch defensive outfielder who could run, he had not been a consistent hitter with St. Louis and Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog sat him down against lefthanded pitching. Neither was Van Slyke especially happy to be coming to Pittsburgh. Although he had been a platoon player with the Cardinals since the former number one pick had arrived in St. Louis as a rookie in 1983, Van Slyke and his family had grown accustomed to the area, not to mention the Cardinals had been a contender during Andy’s time there and Van Slyke had gotten to play in the 1985 World Series. The Pirates, on the other hand, were coming off three strait last place finishes and players moaned about the lack of baseball enthusiasm in Pittsburgh.
It was hard for fans not to be enthusiastic, however, once Van Slyke hit his stride with the Pirates. Originally, Manager Jim Leyland stationed the ex-Cardinal in rightfield, the position Van Slyke had played with his old team. Van Slyke’s arm and ability to get a jump on the ball made him a natural for centerfield and Leyland moved him there in May. Van Slyke was off to a poor start at the plate, but collected three homeruns during a June 7 doubleheader against the Mets and hit well the rest of the way, finishing at .287. While he was passed over in the gold glove award, Van Slyke was certainly deserving, performing acrobatics in centerfield which Pittsburgh fans had not been privileged to since the days of Bill Virdon. His play helped spark a red-hot stretch run by the Pirates who served notice they would no longer be doormats for their opponents.
Van Slyke surpassed almost all of the career high totals he set in 1987 in 1988, a year when offenses as a whole took a step backwards and pitching became more dominant. Van Slyke helped keep the Pirates in contention most of the summer with his bat, glove and legs and was recognized by The Sporting News as its National League’s Player of the Year. He also won the deserved gold glove, a silver slugger and the Roberto Clemente Award and finished fourth in the MVP balloting by the baseball writers. His 15 triples led the league and his 100 rbi’s tied with teammate Bobby Bonilla for third. The player now recognized for his hitting as well as his glove put together an 11 game rbi streak, one short of the club record set by Paul Waner in 1927. Making the All-Star team for the first time, Van Slyke showed off his defensive ability by making a diving catch playing in left. The one area where Van Slyke had difficulties in 1988 was hitting lefthanders. He batted just .191 against them, but was far too valuable in centerfield to be rested against southpaws. It was noted that if Van Slyke had hit just .250 against lefties, he would have challenged for the batting title. As it was, he ended up hitting .288.
The first of Van Slyke’s serious injuries with the Pirates occurred early in 1989. He pulled a ribcage muscle and had to be placed on the disabled list. The injury effected his swing all year. His average fell 50 points and his extrabase hit total went from 63 to 36. His rbi’s likewise, almost fell in half. Although not able to hit effectively, Van Slyke’s fielding was largely unhampered and he was awarded his second gold glove.
Van Slyke’s hitting came back somewhat in 1990 and 1991, though it didn’t reach the same heights as it had before the injury. He hit 17 homeruns both seasons and averaged 25 doubles and a .274 average for the two years. He also won his third and fourth gold gloves. More importantly, Van Slyke helped the Pirates to two division titles, although he had difficulties at the plate in the NLCS batting just .208 against the Reds in 1990 and .160 against the Braves in 1991. The centerfielder did give the Pirates an early highlight in the 1991 series when he homered off Tom Glavine in Game 1 to spark the Bucs to a 5-1 win. It was his two-out, ninth inning at bat in Game 6 which still haunts Pirate fans, though. Facing the Braves’ Alejandro Pena in a 1-0 game with the tying run on first, Van Slyke hit a deep drive to right which hooked foul before clearing the fence. Thinking Pena, who had thrown nothing but hard stuff to him the entire at bat would come back with either a fastball or hard slider, Van Slyke watched in surprise as an off-speed pitch floated by for strike three.
A third Eastern Division title in a row for the Pirates seemed a long shot after Bonilla left the team as a free agent and 20 game winner John Smiley was traded for a pair of young players, but Van Slyke and Barry Bonds had huge seasons to carry the team back to the playoffs. While his fifth gold glove was hardly a surprise, Van Slyke, trying to pull the ball less, finished with a career high .324 average, missing the batting title by six points as he finished second to the Padres’ Gary Sheffield. Van Slyke topped the NL in hits (199) and doubles (45) and was third in runs, total bases and triples. He finally was having success against lefthanders, batting .297 against them after averaging just .218 for his career up to 1992. His personal highlights included everything from his usual eye-popping plays in centerfield to an unassisted double play, the first by a National League centerfielder in 20 years, when he snagged Ken Caminiti’s hit-and-run linedrive then proceeded to bounce the ball in almost a dribble on the Three Rivers turf as he easily beat a dumbfounded Luis Gonzalez to first base. Pittsburgh writers honored Andy with his third Clemente Award. Van Slyke hit better in the 1992 NLCS, but once again the Pirates fell to Atlanta.
Van Slyke started the season hot in 1993 and was hitting well over .300 in midseason when he crashed into an outfield wall attempting to make another miraculous play. He broke his collarbone and ended up playing in just 83 games. His batting never got on track after the injury and his hard play had started to take its toll on his legs as well. By 1994, it was obvious Van Slyke had lost a few steps in centerfield and as hitting skyrocketed around him, Andy sputtered to .246. The Pirates allowed the 34-year-old to leave Pittsburgh as a free agent, but his play for Baltimore and Philadelphia indicated his decline was likely permanent. Van Slyke did attempt a comeback with St. Louis a couple of seasons later, but his bid ended when he was injured in spring training.
The always colorful Van Slyke remained well liked in Pittsburgh. During his playing days, he once filled in as a weatherman on KDKA television, joking his way through a series of on camera mistakes. He laughed off remarks Bonds made about him being “Pittsburgh’s Great White Hope,” and provided countless witticisms to reporters. Only Clemente and Bill Mazeroski won more gold gloves for the Pirates than Van Slyke’s five and Andy ranks 21st alltime in club batting with a .284 average and 18th with 103 homeruns to rate highly among the All-Time Pirates.
- Andy Van Slyke