The fates were not kind to the Pittsburgh Pirates. What was supposed to be the great new dynasty in baseball had come to a crashing, screeching halt.
It began on October 12th when the club blew a 2-0 lead in the 5th and deciding game of the NLCS against the Reds, allowing two ninth inning runs, the second and winning one by George Foster off a Bob Moose wild pitch, to lose the NL pennant 3-2, denying them a second consecutive world championship.
As bad as that moment was, New Years Eve 1972, proved to be not only the worst moment for the team that season, but without a doubt the most tragic in the history of the club, when a plane carrying their beloved leader, Roberto Clemente, who was taking relief supplies to earthquake ravaged Nicaragua, went down in the Atlantic Ocean over Puerto Rico, killing all aboard. The shock of his death left black cloud over this season. He had gone from being a misunderstood player early in his career, to the unabashed leader of this club. He life affected his teammates in such a positive way, and his death devastated them.
Seeing his distraught friend Manny Sanguillen taking his place in right field on opening day, is a sad memory that all Pirate fans that experienced it will never forget.
If losing their dear teammate was a bad enough blow to this team, losing the man who had been the backbone of their pitching staff since 1968, was one that put them over the edge. Steve Blass not only was one of the classiest players ever to take the field, but he constantly was the pitcher the team would depend on to pull them out of a slump during their championship run. In 1972, he went 19-8 and was one of the finest pitchers in the senior circuit. Something mysterious and dreadful was to happen to Blass during 1973, he couldn’t hit the strike zone. It is a malady that has become to be known as the Steve Blass disease in later years, (partly in honor of the way he wonderfully handled the unfortunate situation) but in 1973, he went from the top to the bottom of the mountain in a short time.
Blass went 3-9 with a staggering 9.85 ERA in 1973, giving up 84 walks, 109 hits and 97 earned runs in only 882/3 innings pitched. The only success Steve would enjoy in 1973 was while batting as he hit .417 in 24 at bats. Try as he may, Blass never figured out what his problem was as retired only a year later after walking 7 batters and giving up 5 runs in only 5 innings of work. Later on Blass said the toughest thing he ever had to do was tell his teammates that he was going to retire.
Without Blass and Clemente, winning a fourth consecutive National League Eastern Division title was going to be a difficult venture.
The Bucs retired the great ones number on opening day, a game where they beat the visiting St Louis Cardinals 7-5 on opening day, April 6th. It was to be the beginning of a streak that saw the Bucs win 8 of their first 10 games, before losing their next six in a row, the last one 8-7 against the Giants after building a 7-1 lead in the ninth inning.
The Pirates certainly had some holes to fill in 1973; the biggest void was the one of course in right field. No body had played the position in the Steel City since 1955 when Clemente first took over the reins, and the first opportunity was to go to Sangy.
Manny played 59 games in right during the season returning to his natural spot behind the plate by June 15th. The idea was with Sanguillen in right; it also would open up a spot for the young Milt May, who looked like he could become an offensive force at catcher. Neither Sangy nor May had one of their best campaigns, Manny hitting .282 with 12 homers and 65 RBI’s while May finished at .269. While Sanguillen’s season was still good, it wasn’t up to the standard he had set in his prior seasons. Manny showed he was still a clutch hitter, knocking in 67% of the runners that were on third base with two outs.
After the Sanguillen experiment, was over, in came young Richie Zisk, who to this date had six solid minor league seasons. Zisk had a tremendous rookie season hitting .324, the only Pirate regular to achieve the .300 level in 1973. Another young outfielder also would spend some time in right, a position he eventually took over full time, becoming the best player in baseball by the end of the decade, by the name of Dave Parker. Parker hit .288 in 54 games and showed that the farm system the Bucs had set up was far from dry.
While the players from the minors wouldn’t be enough to overcome the Clemente tragedy in ’73, it was the foundation never the less of the great teams in the 70’s. As the team came to Pittsburgh in 1973, 15 players on the 25-man roster came up though the Pirate organization. The average age of the team was only 26, so there was potential for the future.
Another position that needed some depth after the retirement of Bill Mazeroski was second base. Dave Cash was the starter and a slipped a little from ’72, hitting 11 points less at .271. Rennie Stennett, who had spent a good deal of 1972 in the outfield, had now become a fulltime second baseman. Stennett also had a disappointing 1973, hitting only .242. There was a third option in the minors, Chuck Goggin. Ron Coons, who was a baseball writer for the Louisville Courier Journal, proclaimed Goggin the best prospect in the International League. Goggin would hit .333 in two seasons with the Pirates, although it only came in 9 at bats. He was shipped off to Atlanta by May of 1973. As for Coons prediction, Goggin was gone from the game after the 1974 season.
Joining Cash and Stennett in the middle infield at short was veteran Dale Maxvill. Maxvill was purchased from the A’s in mid season to ad stability to a position that Pittsburgh had not found with Gene Alley and Jackie Hernandez. Maxvill proved he wasn’t the answer either hitting only .189. There was a shortstop at Charleston whom farm director Pete Peterson said might be the best defensively in the minors by the name of Frank Tavaras. He didn’t make it up in ’73, but would start in the mid 70’s. He certainly turned out not to be the defensive wizard Peterson envisioned.
The only stable part of the infield was Richie Hebner at third. Hebner’s average fell to .271, he still hit 25 homers.
On the other side of the infield Bob Robertson continued his slide, hitting .239 with 14 homers, suffering an injured back by mid season.
Things got continually worse for the club as they fell to 41-49 by July 15th. Eight games out, in fourth place, the defending three time Eastern Division champions picked themselves up and won the next seven contest, pushing them to third 5 games behind. Luckily for Pittsburgh in 1973, while they were having a down year, so was the rest of the division as they were able to stay in striking distance despite their sub par play.
The one player that was able to keep the team going in Clemente’s absence was Willie Stargell. Under adversity, Willie had a tremendous season leading the league in homers with 44 and RBI’s with 119, while winning the slugging title by 90 points over the Braves Darrell Evans. In the process of having his wonderful campaign, Stargell set the all time Pirate record for extra base hits with 90.
Teaming with Starg in the outfield was centerfielder Al Oliver. Oliver had his best major league season to date with 20 homers and 99 RBI’s, hitting .292.
Over all the offense was still potent, it was the pitching staff that seem to fall apart the most in 1973. The team ERA shot up almost a full run a game from 1972 to 3.74. Dave Giusti and Ramon Hernandez still were a formidable 1-2 punch put of the bullpen, Giusti with a 9-2 mark and 2.37 ERA with 20 saves and Hernandez at 4-5-.241 with 11 saves. After that it provided the team with no depth, except for Jim Rooker who came out of the bullpen 23 times in 41 games, finishing 10-6 with a 2.85 ERA.
Nellie Briles was the strength of the starting rotation with a 14-13-2.84 season. Past that Dock Ellis hurt his elbow, Luke Walker was 7-12 and Blass of course completely as was stated before, completely blew up.
With the club six games out on August 6th, the baseball writers of America bestowed the ultimate honor of the Pirates fallen leader, electing Roberto Clemente to the Hall of Fame. Clemente was only the second player in major league history, Lou Gehrig being the first, to have their five-year waiting period waved before entering the Hall. Clemente who had fought for the respect of all Latin players, was also given the honor of becoming the first Latin player ever elected to Cooperstown.
After losing to the Rangers in the Hall of Fame Game, 6-4, the Bucs never got on track, yet continued to pick up ground despite the fact they stayed around .500. By the beginning of September, they defeated the Cardinals 5-4, to go above .500 for the first time since June 3rd at 66-65. Although they were only a game over .500 they were in second place only 2 games out.
Pittsburgh lost 4 of the next 6 games, prompting Joe L Brown to give manager Bill Virdon the boot, in favor of none other than Danny Murtaugh. Murtaugh got the team going winning 7 of the next 9 to climb into first place with a 74-71 mark.
A four game losing streak knocked them into second and in spite of the fact they still had a shot to tie for the title at the end of the season, they still fell short of .500 with an 80-82 mark.
1973 will always go down in Pirate history as one of the most troubling seasons the team has ever endured. Although they would win two more titles the next two seasons, for all intents and purposes, the dream of a dynasty was now over.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Al Oliver, Bill Mazeroski, Bill Virdon, Bob Moose, Bob Robertson, Chuck Goggin, Dal Maxvill, Danny Murtaugh, Dave Cash, Dave Giusti, Dave Parker, Dock Ellis, Gene Alley, Jackie Hernandez, Joe Brown, Luke Walker, Manny Sanguillen, Milt May, Nellie Briles, Ramon Hernandez, Rennie Stennett, Richie Hebner, Richie Zisk, Roberto Clemente, Steve Blass, Willie Stargell