The Pirates began a new era following the 1976 season. The retirements of Danny Murtaugh and Joe L. Brown had changed the familiar continuity of a franchise which had been very successful during the first seven years of the decade. Also, player free agency in its infancy, was already having an effect on the makeup of the team. Richie Hebner, the club’s third baseman since 1969, left the black and gold to wear the blue and red of the Philadelphia Phillies. The way player contracts would be written and dealt with was about to undergo radical changes.
Given the task of adapting to baseball’s new age was Harding “Pete” Peterson, a former backup catcher with the team in the 1950’s who had served the organization in a number of capacities following his retirement as a player. Peterson had been serving as Scouting and Minor League Director when he became Vice-President of Player Personnel. Joe O’Toole assumed some of Brown’s former business duties, but Peterson would be the man responsible for acquiring and keeping ballplayers. Peterson’s first job was to find a replacement for Murtaugh, not only a skilled manager, but also a popular figure in Pittsburgh. The new GM had a perfect candidate in Chuck Tanner, a native of New Castle, PA, located just a short commute from Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, Tanner was under contract to manage the Oakland A’s and the A’s maverick owner, Charles O. Finley knew he had a powerful bargaining piece and was desperate for players as five of the A’s biggest stars had played out their options and signed with other teams. The Pirates could have Tanner, but the price was catcher Manny Sanguillen and cash. In a separate move that evening, Peterson sold utility man Tommy Helms to Oakland.
With Tanner the new field general, Peterson then went to work on dealing one of his unhappy infantrymen. Richie Zisk, a consistent RBI man with 20+ homerun power secretly made it known to the Pirates that he would in no way sign a contract as he intended to test his value as a free agent following the 1977 season. As the outfielder had not made his plans public, Peterson was able to deal him along with minor league prospect Silvio Martinez to the White Sox for two players who had excelled under Tanner, Rich Gossage and Terry Forster. Tanner had managed the two while he was with the White Sox and both pitchers had been the American League’s top relief pitcher, Forster in 1974 and Gossage in 1975. Paul Richards, the man who had replaced Tanner as manager for the ChiSox, was an old baseball man who believed a team’s best arms should be put in the starting rotation and had changed the pitcher’s roles. Playing with a weak Chicago team did not help the transition and Gossage went 8-17 and Forster 2-12. Still, both threw hard and Tanner, a master at using relief pitchers, believed both could be successful again pitching out of the bullpen. Tanner knew he was inheriting a strong starting rotation, but a suspect bullpen. Bob Moose’s unfortunate death in an automobile accident on his 29th birthday further depleted the relief corps, which was already minus Ramon Hernandez, having traded the lefty down the stretch and was depending on the aging Dave Giusti and young Kent Tekulve, who’s major league career was less than two years old.
Peterson added another left-handed arm when he traded infielders Craig Reynolds, a former number one draft pick, and Jimmy Sexton to the expansion Seattle Mariners for Grant Jackson, a proven reliever who had gone 6-0 for the American League pennant winning New York Yankees after being obtained from Baltimore in midseason.
Tanner set about revising the Pirate lineup once spring training started. Al Oliver moved into Zisk’s old spot in leftfield, freeing centerfield for the incredibly fast Omar Moreno. Although Murtaugh had resurrected the team’s running game the year before, Tanner was a major supporter of the stolen base. His White Sox teams had generally stolen more bases than most of their competitors and his 1976 A’s swiped 341 bases, the most by a major league team in over 60 years. Moreno figured to fit in perfectly in such an attack and his long strides in the outfield would take away many hits from the opposition. The players were excited by Tanner’s brand of baseball and his optimism. Willie Stargell even predicted he would steal 10 bases.
Filling Hebner’s spot at third, however, did not prove easy. Bill Robinson, who had played 37 games at third in 1976 in order to get his bat into the lineup opened spring training with a chance to win the position as was converted catcher Ken Macha and former minor league batting champion Fernando Gonzalez, back with the team a second time. Unsatisfied with Robinson’s glove or that the younger players could do the job on a fulltime basis, Peterson went after another player who’s abilities Tanner was familiar with, but again had to deal with Finley and once again the A’s owner knew he had the card Peterson needed for a winning hand. That card was Phil Garner, a young, hardnosed player who’s bulldog like play would earn him the nickname “Scrap Iron.” Garner had played second base for Tanner in Oakland, but had been a third baseman in the minor leagues. In order for Peterson to get Garner, he had to part with six players, including Giusti, starting pitcher Doc Medich and top prospects Tony Armas, Mitchell Page, Rick Langford and Doug Bair. Helms returned to the Pirates as part of the deal and Finley also threw in minor league pitcher Chris Batton, but the A’s owner had obtained what he saw as seven players who could help his major league team for a manager and one starting infielder.
The trade, however, gave the Pirates a strong starting lineup, which had both power and speed. The Lumber Company became Lumber and Lightening in ad campaigns and the Pirate fortunes looked promising coming out of spring. With Oliver in left, Moreno in center and Garner at third, the team’s defense would be more mobile. The trade of Sanguillen opened the door for the tough, left-handed hitting Ed Ott to share time with Duffy Dyer, an accomplished handler of pitchers. A rotation of John Candelaria, Jim Rooker, Jerry Reuss, Bruce Kison and Larry Demery had both potential and a winning track record and the bullpen’s depth appeared outstanding.
Tanner’s batting order placed jackrabbits Moreno and Frank Taveras at the top of the lineup and in order to take even more advantage of the team’s speed, Tanner moved Dave Parker to third in the lineup and dropped Oliver and his .300 batting average to the cleanup spot, and Stargell, coming off his worse season since 1968 to fifth. The three left-handed batting stars would be followed by Stennett, moved out of his usual leadoff spot to sixth where his clutch hitting might be more advantageous and his hatred of walks less of a handicap, Garner and the Pirate’s catching platoon.
The new look Pirates got off to a bad start, being completely outplayed by St. Louis in the opening series at home. During the contests, Bucco pitching allowed 28 runs. The staff and team quickly reversed its fortunes by winning the next four as the pitchers hurled two shutouts and in the other two games allowed just one run. After dropping the next four, the Pirates got red hot, winning 16 of 17. The biggest Pirate during this period was literally the biggest Pirate. Beginning on April 15, Parker went on a 22 game hitting streak raising his average above .400. Stargell was named player of the week in early May, going 10-for-22 with five homeruns and 10 RBI’s. Likewise, lefthander Candelaria got off to a fast start, opening the season 6-0 and Gossage quickly established himself as baseball’s premiere power reliever. On May 19, Gossage fanned 8 Dodger batters in three innings of work as the Pirates won 6-5. Garner, while at times inconsistent, was showing more range at third than any Pirate third baseman since Don Hoak. The Pirates held first place through most of May before a five game losing streak to the surprising Chicago Cubs and chief rival Philadelphia Phillies dropped the Bucs to third for a day before Candelaria shut out the Phils on June 1 to move the team back into second.
The Pirates remained a streaky team, however, and while the club was in the midst of a seven game slide in June, Peterson made several moves to bolster the club’s disappointing bench. He released Helms, who was hitless on the season, sent Macha to the minors and traded Ed Kirkpatrick to Texas for veteran infielder Jim Fregosi, a right-handed hitter. Peterson also signed former star Bobby Tolan and switch hitter Jerry Hairston, but only Fregosi, who appeared infrequently, hit well.
Candelaria continued to pitch well as midseason approached and Rooker joined him in giving the team a solid 1-2 punch in the rotation, but Reuss and Kison were disappointing. Reuss lost his first five decisions before righting himself and Kison was inconsistent all year. Tanner was having even worse luck with his fifth starters as Demery and rookie Odell Jones both had ERAs over 5.00 the first half. Luckily, Tekulve was providing strong middle relief work and Gossage had only the Cubs’ Bruce Sutter as a rival for top relief man in the majors. Gossage’s overpowering stuff made him a favorite with Pirate fans, and the front office placed a pet goose in the bullpen, which waddled on to the field when Gossage, amid goose calls played over the PA system, entered a game.
The Pirates went to Philadelphia for a four game set on June 30 and the Phillies repulsed the Bucs to place them 10 games back, but Tanner’s crew fought back by taking three of four from St. Louis, in a series which featured Stargell’s 400th career homerun to regain two games in the standings. The Phillies came to Pittsburgh next, having gained a half game on July 7 while the Pirates were idle. The Pirates took an exciting opener when Fregosi walked with the bases loaded in the tenth, 8-7. The game featured an onfield brawl, ignited when Kison hit Mike Schmidt with a pitch. The win would prove costly, however, as Stargell was injured trying to break up the battle. Eventually, his injury was diagnosed as a pinched nerve and he went on the disabled list in early August and was lost to the team for the rest of the year. After a disappointing 1976, Stargell had appeared on his way to an excellent comeback season, hitting 13 homeruns in only 186 at bats.
Light-hitting Mario Mendoza was the hero the next night as he singled in the game winner in the 12th after Forster had not allowed the Phillies to score in the top of the inning despite giving up a leadoff triple. Reuss pitched well in defeating Jim Londborg, 5-1 and the Bucs out slugged Danny Ozark’s men, 12-10, to sweep a double header to move within 6 ½ games of the Cubs, who had taken over first.
Without Stargell, it was lucky for Tanner that he still had Bill Robinson on the team. Robinson had continued to hit well in his ‘super sub’ role during the first half of 1977, but his star really shown with everyday play the rest of the season, such as the game of July 22, when he tripled to tie the game in the 10th and singled home the winning run in the 12th. Another Pirate who was having a superstar year was Rennie Stennett, the second baseman was hitting well over .300 and stealing bases as never before. Al Oliver, who almost every was a .300 threat was on his way to accomplishing the feat for the fourth time in five years. The Bucs won 17 of 21 during a hot stretch in July to move to only two games out in the standings and when Robinson hit his second grand slam in three days on July 30 to win a game against the Braves, the Pirates moved to within one of the Phillies, now in first place as the Cubs had faded as predicted.
By mid-August, though, the Phillies had managed to 5 ½ games between themselves and the Bucs, when disaster struck the Pirate pennant hopes. Stennett severely broke his right leg sliding into second base against the Giants. He would be gone for the remainder of the year. Forced to make due with rookie Dale Berra inserted into the lineup at third and Garner moving to second, the offense slumped. In one game, for instance, the Bucs had three runners thrown out at home against the Dodgers. As August drew to a close, Pirate pitching allowed only four runs in a five game winning streak to put the team 22 games over .500 at 77-55 and the club had once again cut into the Phillies lead, reducing it to four games, but four losses in a row as the Phillies were winning three dropped the Bucs back to seven games out as the Phils returned to Pittsburgh on September fourth. Candelaria beat Randy Learch, 3-1, backed by strong defensive plays by Robinson and Gonzalez, but the Phillies took the game back the next night as they pounded Kison while Steve Carlton was handcuffing the Pirate hitters. Desperately needing to take the rubber game, the teams battled into the 11th before Berra delivered the game winning hit, keeping slim hopes for the division title alive. The Pirates next took three of five from the Cardinals and Montreal, but the Phillies were playing better and when the Pirates went to the Vet for the final time in 1977, they needed a sweep to remain in the race. It was not to be. The Phillies handled Reuss in the first game and although Rooker shut them out the next day, the Phillies lead was eight with 16 games remaining. However, with none of those games being against Philadelphia, the Pirates all but conceded the pennant. Even so, the Bucs had one hot streak left, winning 12 of their final 13 games, to reduce the Phillies margin of victory to five. 96 Pirate wins, the most by the team since 1972 and more than their division winning teams of 1970, 1974 and 1975 had collected were not enough to at out a very strong Phillie team.
Dave Parker won the batting title (.338) and led the league with 215 hits and 44 doubles while hitting 21 homeruns, scoring 107 times and driving home 88. If he had had enough at bats, Stennett’s .336 would have ranked second in the NL. Oliver finished at .308 with 19 homeruns and 82 RBI’s and Bill Robinson, .304, leading the team with 26 homers and 104 RBI’s. Garner’s average was only .260, but he became a fan favorite with his hustle and contributed 35 doubles and 17 homeruns.
Tanner made good on his promise to have the team running from start to finish. Taveras led the league and established a new Pirate record with 70 stolen bases. Moreno stole 53 despite struggling at times to get on base; Garner, 32; Stennett 28 and Parker, Oliver, Robinson and pinch-runner Miguel Dilone each had over a dozen. Moreno and Parker played especially well in the field with Parker collecting a Clemente-like 26 assists and winning his first gold glove award.
Candelaria had his finest year, going 20-5 to lead the NL in winning percentage at .800 while capturing the ERA title at 2.34. He was the first pitcher since Sandy Koufax to lead in both categories and win 20 games. Rooker went 14-9. Gossage, 11-9 with 26 saves and a new relief pitcher record 151 strikeouts in only 133 innings, had one of the greatest years ever by a Pirate reliever. Tekulve, kidded at times for picking up “vulture” wins by his teammates, was 10-1. The rest of the staff was somewhat disappointing, a fact which was surprising as Tanner got through the year with 10 pitchers until the roster was expanded in September. If even three of the other six hurlers had done as well as expected, the team might have overcome the devastating injuries to Stargell and Stennett and moved on to face the Dodgers in the NLCS.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Al Oliver, Bill Robinson, Bob Moose, Bobby Tolan, Bruce Kison, Chris Batton, Chuck Tanner, Craig Reynolds, Dale Berra, Danny Murtaugh, Dave Giusti, Dave Parker, Doc Medich, Doug Bair, Duffy Dyer, Ed Kirkpatrick, Ed Ott, Fernando Gonzalez, Frank Taveras, Grant Jackson, Jerry Hairston, Jerry Reuss, Jim Fregosi, Jim Rooker, Jimmy Sexton, Joe Brown, Joe O'Toole, John Candelaria, Ken Macha, Kent Tekulve, Larry Demery, Manny Sanguillen, Mario Mendoza, Miguel Dilone, Mitchell Page, Odell Jones, Omar Moreno, Pete Peterson, Phil Garner, Ramon Hernandez, Rennie Stennett, Rich Gossage, Richie Hebner, Richie Zisk, Rick Langford, Silvio Martinez, Terry Forster, Tommy Helms, Tony Armas, Willie Stargell