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The Pirates’ tremendous stretch run in 1978 gave hope for the coming season, but during the 1978 playoffs, there were grumblings Dave Parker, not just the league’s MVP, but the most complete talent in the game would leave the team after 1979 when he could become a free agent and the local sports call in shows were bombarded with calls regarding whether or not Pete Peterson should trade the superstar or pay him a huge amount of money to keep him in Pittsburgh. Peterson, with the blessings of ownership chose the latter and Parker signed what at the time was baseball’s largest contract, a five-year deal worth in the neighborhood of $7 million. The Pirates weren’t finished, however, trying to build a championship team. Management made a serious bid to sign free agent thirdbaseman Pete Rose before losing out to the defending division champion Phillies, but Peterson was able to swing a deal with Seattle for Enrique Romo, who had pitched effectively in relief for the Mariners during the team’s first two years ix istence, without giving up anyone who figured in the team’s plans. Just prior to the Pittsburgh Steeler’s victory in Super Bowl XIII, Peterson added a free agent bat in Lee Lacy, who had hit 13 homeruns while batting .261 in 245 at bats for the Dodgers in ’78. The plan was for Lacy, regarded as a weak defensive player at the time, to back up in the outfield as well as at third and second. With Duffy Dyer having left the team as a free agent, the righthanded hitting catcher’s job in Chuck Tanner’s platoon system became open for rookie Steve Nicosia, a former Number One draft pick. Late in spring training, Peterson further added to the Pirates bench by reacquiring Mike Easler, the International League’s reigning batting champion from the Red Sox. Easler had been frozen on the AAA roster in 1978 and as he was out of options, Peterson had traded him to Boston the previous fall. When Easler was unable to make the heavy-hitting Red Sox, the Pirate GM was able to bring him back to the team for two lesser prospects.
While the Pirates appeared to field a strong team, the fact that Willie Stargell turned 39 during camp and the disappointing 1978 Bill Robinson had endured worried fans. Also, the signing of Rose by the Phillies and deals which brought gold glove secondbaseman Manny Trillo and an impressive young pitcher, Nino Espinosa, to Philadelphia made the team from the City of Brotherly Love picked to treat the rest of the division unkindly.
The Pirates again got off to their usual poor start, playing sloppy ball. Five errors helped do them in in the opener and they lost four of their first five, including two the Phillies. Although John Milner’s hot bat and strong pitching by Don Robinson, Jim Bibby and Ed Whitson helped the team even their record at 4-4, another poor series against Philadelphia, which was noteworthy for Greg Luzinski becoming the first opposing player to hit a homerun into the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium, left the club dismayed. The defense, which had been the league’s most erratic in 1978 was playing along the same lines early in 1979 and Peterson and Tanner decided they had seen enough of Frank Taveras’s moody play. On April 19, in a swap of shortstops, Peterson traded the speedy but inconsistent Taveras for Tim Foli, a solid defensive player, but one who had been only so-so offensively. Foli was also known as a fiery player who wanted very badly to win all the time, but he had spent his career with poor teams.
The defensive improvement Foli was to bring was not immediately seen as he made an error which cost the Bucs a game in Houston and began his Pirate career 0-for-10. The Pirates dropped all three games against the Astros to drop their record to 4-10.
The team played a little better immediately after the six game losing streak, but found no consistency. In late April and early May, the Pirates exchanged wins and losses over a 14 game span. After losing their second in a row on May 15, the Bucs sponsored a promotion called Win Streak Night, promising fans in attendance free admission to the next game if the Pirates won. Easler sent the fans home happy by hitting a pinch hit homerun in the bottom of the 13th and the fans were invited back to see Stargell enjoy a two homerun game the next night, the second coming off a young Met hurler named Jesse Orosco.
After beating the Cubs handily at Wrigley Field the next day, Jim Rooker came off the disabled list to pitch a strong game and Grant Jackson, after allowing a foul ball homerun to Bill Buckner which would have tied the game, got the Cub star to ground out to save the shut out. The Bucs won their fifth strait the next day and homeruns from Omar Moreno, Stargell and Ed Ott supported Blyeleven against Montreal for consecutive win number six before the Bucs lost the final two games of the series.
Another pinch hit homer by Easler helped the Bucs cling to a 3-3 tie in New York on May 26, in a game eventually called because of fog and the Bucs headed home against the west coast teams 5 ½ games behind the Expos who had moved into first ahead of the slumping Phillies. Opening against San Diego, the Pirates won a come from behind victory when Parker homered against John D’Aquisto for three runs to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth and Lacy drew a bases loaded walk later in the frame off future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers for the win. After losing to another future Hall of Famer, Gaylord Perry, on June 3, Bruce Kison was given an unexpected start when Don Robinson was unable to pitch. Kison, who had pitched in relief the night before, carried a no-hitter into the eighth when with two outs, Barry Evans singled off Phil Garner’s glove at third. The hit ruling caused some controversy and Garner stated after the game he should have made the play, but it appeared a proper call. Kison finished with a 1-hit, 7-0 shutout. The Pirates then split six games against the Dodgers and Giants before heading to the coast.
California had not been golden for the Pirates in recent years. Since 1974, the team had gone 18-36 there and had played particularly poorly in Dodger stadium and Candlestick Park, winning only eight while dropping 28. The team had requested an off day be scheduled to help with jet lag before opening in San Diego. Still the Bucs dropped two to the Padres, one in 14 innings with Foli’s error paving the way. The Bucs rebounded to sweep the Dodgers, however, for the first time in Los Angeles since 1971 behind strong performances by Blyleven, Don Robinson, Whitson and clutch relief from Kent Tekulve. The Bucco bats then took over in San Francisco as the Pirates swept the two game series, 9-4 and 8-5. Hoping to gain momentum from their successful trip, the Pirates were unable to build on their success by going just 3-5 in the next two series, against the East’s two weakest teams, the Cubs and Mets.
Although the June 15 trading deadline had come and gone without the Peterson making a trade, the Pirate general manager had not given up hope of adding to his ballclub. Rennie Stennett was continuing to struggle at the plate and in the field, his right leg he had fractured in 1977 still not allowing him to be the player he was before the injury. Rumors circulated that the Pirates were in the running to acquire two time batting champion Bill Madlock from the Giants. Madlock had not gotten along well with Giants’ manager Joe Altobelli and had gotten off to a dreadful start at the plate. It was known the Giants were trying to move him. Somehow San Francisco was able to get waivers on Madlock and when Peterson agreed to send a trio of talented young pitchers, Whitson and minor leaguers Al Holland and Fred Breining to San Francisco, the .300 hitter along with veteran lefthander Dave Roberts became Pirates. The Bucs also received veteran Lanny Randle in the deal, but he was assigned to Portland and later sold to the Yankees without ever appearing in a game for the Pirates.
Madlock had been playing secondbase with the Giants, but his range was limited. Tanner moved the stocky righthanded batter back to his natural position, thirdbase and Garner replaced Stennett at second. The power of the Pirates lineup was more than evident as Madlock, boasting the highest lifetime batting average of any National Leaguer was placed in the sixth spot in the order. Still, by the time Madlock joined the slumping Pirates, the Bucs had fallen 8 ½ games behind Montreal after losing two to the Expos.
Madlock became the final key member of what was to the team that was to become known as “The Family.”
Adopting the Sister Sledge disco hit We Are Fam-A-Lee as its theme song, the players emphasized the individuality in their personalities, but the togetherness they felt as a team. They formed a family who worked hard together for a common goal, but also enjoyed each other’s company and camaraderie. As had the 1971 team, the 1979 Pirates’ clubhouse was filled with ruckus and practical jokes. It was not uncommon for a player to have a shaving cream pie shoved into his face while being interviewed on television, or to kid each other about their shortcomings.
The patriarch of The Family was Willie Stargell. Playing in his 18th year with the team, Stargell had experienced all of the ups and downs of major league life. He became a jovial counselor to the younger players, breaking tension when matters became tense as well as wise words when a teammate got down on himself. The affection the Pirate players felt for him was reflected in his nickname, “Pops.” Stargell began to pass out felt stars to the players for their achievements in helping win ballgames. The players used the stars as badges of honor, attaching them to their caps. Like We Are Fam-A-Lee, “Stargell Stars” became another symbol of 1979 which would be remembered by the players and The Family’s distant cousins, the Pittsburgh fans, forever.
With “Maddog” joining the team in St. Louis, the Bucs took three of four from the Cardinals and only George Hendrick’s leaping catch of Milner’s drive to right in the ninth inning prevented a Pirate sweep. However, a poor showing in Cincinnati, salvaged only by a game winning homer by Stargell, dropped the team into fourth place and nullified some of the gains made in St. Louis as the team dropped back to seven games out.
Just before the All-Star break, the Bucs swept three from Houston while Montreal was losing three. The quick turn around saw the Pirates, still in fourth, but only four out and only one behind the Cubs and Phillies.
Parker was named to the All-Star Team despite numbers (16-54-.297) which while good, were slightly off from the year before. Others enjoying fine first halves were Stargell (18-41-.307), Bill Robinson (19 homers), the surprising Moreno (.305) and the traditionally slow starting Garner (.294). Blyleven had been pitching well and Candelaria led the team with eight victories. The deep Pirate pitching staff was getting strong performances from the key relievers, Tekulve, Romo and Jackson. Tekulve and Romo had come on strong after struggling at the beginning.
Starting in rightfield for the National League, Parker won the All-Star Game’s MVP award by throwing out two runners in the National League’s 7-6 win in Seattle.
With the team facing 24 games in 18 days following the break, the Pirates recalled veteran pitcher Joe Coleman, a two time 20 game winner with Detroit earlier in the decade, to help bolster the staff. The Pirates opened the second half at Three Rivers and swept the Western Division leading Astros four strait, in the process beating flame thrower J. R. Richard and when Bill Robinson and Garner broke ace reliever Joe Sambito’s streak of 40 2/3 scoreless innings with homeruns on July 21, the Bucs had their seventh strait win.
Rain forced the Pirates into back to back doubleheaders against the Braves. The Pirates swept the first double header to move within ½ game of Montreal, then ran their winning streak to 10 behind Blyleven the next day when Foli contributed four rbi’s. Phil Niekro showed he was paid to pitch and not hit in the follow up. He hit into a triple play, the first turned by the Pirates since 1971, but hurled a two-hitter in beating the Bucs, 8-0. Niekro’s knucklers brought on a cold spell for the Pirates as they dropped four in a row before going to Montreal for a four game series.
Garner, after making an error to surrender a Pirate lead earlier in the game drove in Parker to win the opener. Blyleven threw a four-hitter and Milner homered and drove in four as the Bucs made it two in a row, 9-1. Bibby and bullpen stars Jackson and Tekulve pitched the Bucs into first place on July 29, but Montreal got a big three run triple from Andre Dawson and strong pitching from Steve Rogers in the finale to regain the lead.
The Pirates split the next four at home against the Mets and Cardinals before the Phillies, needing to make a move, came to town for a set of five critical games. The Phils had been severely hampered by injuries to their pitchers and double play combination of Trillo and Larry Bowa. They were five games out of first, four behind Pittsburgh and hungry to re-establish themselves as the dominant team in the NL East.
Friday night featured a doubleheader. Parker hit a three-run homer off lefthanded relief ace Tug McGraw in the opener for a 6-3 win and Bibby pitched a five-hitter to coast to a 5-0 win in game two. The next afternoon, it was Candelaria’s turn to befuddle the Phils as he combined with Tekulve on another shutout. A slugfest followed the next afternoon. The Pirates, led by Nicosia’s four hits, battled the Phillies to an 8-8 tie going into the bottom of the ninth. The Bucs loaded the bases to bring up their four-for-four catcher. But with righthander Rawley Eastwick on the mound, Tanner sent Milner up to hit for the backstop. Phils’ manager Danny Ozark countered by bringing in McGraw. The sly Tanner allowed Milner to hit and the player called “The Hammer” launched a grandslam to win the game. Tanner explained his strategy after the game. He realized Ozark would go to McGraw to face Milner, generally a platoon player, but Tanner realized McGraw had been having trouble with his pitches, the lone exception being his screwball, a pitch that broke into a lefthanded batter when thrown by a southpaw. The Pirates took their fifth in a row over the Phils the next day, 5-2.
The two teams would meet again the following weekend in Philadelphia. The Phillies gained a game back on lighthitting Bud Harrelson’s single in the 12th to open the series in the first game of another Friday night doubleheader. Kison, Romo and Tekulve took the game back a few hours later. The Saturday game was a nationally televised contest. The Pirates fell behind 5-0, but fought back and again it was the team’s lefthanded hitting doing the job against McGraw which eventually made the fans watching the game in Western Pennsylvania happy after Coleman provided bulldog like relief. Easler provided a pinch hit rbi to put the Bucs up 9-8 and in the eighth Ott hit another grandslam off the struggling reliever. While Sunday’s rain out gave the Phillies a temporary reprieve, the Pirate’s execution of their cross state rival was completed the next day, 7-1.
Next, the West Coast teams came back to Pittsburgh. The Bucs took six of nine and prepared to face the same teams in California immediately after the homestand.
Opening the trip in San Diego, the Bucs dropped the first game to the Padres, but came back the next night with another memorable victory. After Perry had shut the Pirates out for eight innings, the Bucs tied the game with two runs in the ninth. The clubs exchanged runs in the 12th and in the 16th the Padres loaded the bases against Roberts with two outs. With no other options on the bench, San Diego manager Roger Craig stayed with pitcher John D’Acquisto, a large man who occasionally could drive the ball. Roberts fell behind his mound opponent, 3-0, when he looked towards secondbase to see Padres’ star Dave Winfield giving him the choke sign. Roberts composed himself and rallied to fan D’Acquisto, ending the threat. The next inning, Roberts again pulled himself out of a pit. The Padres loaded the bases again, this time with nobody out, but Roberts fanned dangerous veteran Jay Johnstone, got Jerry Turner to hit into a 6-2 force out and retired Bill Fahey to end the inning. In the top of the 19th, Bill Robinson doubled and scored the winning run on Foli’s 0-2 single. The game ended after 3:00am Pittsburgh time, but the club appeared rested the next day. Kison provided the highlights, hitting a grandslam and combining with Romo on a 9-2 win.
The Pirate’s took two of three in LA, then moved on to San Francisco where Matt Alexander’s speed on the bases and Tekulve’s glove in leftfield, yes leftfield, highlighted a win. Alexander was used almost exclusively as a pinch runner during his time with the Pirates from 1978-1981. He entered the game for Easler with the score tied, stole second, went to third on a ground out and scored the lead run on Dale Berra’s fly to center. Tekulve, pitching the ninth, retired the first two batters before allowing a hit to put the tying run on base. With lefthanded slugger Darrell Evans due up next, Tanner signaled for his lefty ace, Jackson. However, the Giants had the righthanded hitting Mike Ivie, another powerhitter, on deck and Tanner wanted Teke available to face him if Evans continued the game. Figuring Evans, a pull hitter, would be unlikely to hit the ball to left, the manager stationed Tekulve there. Sure enough, Evans went with an outside pitch to that part of the ballpark, but Tekulve was ready and pulled in the fly ball to end the game. The Bucs took the next two as well to become the first team to sweep the season series from the Giants at Candelstick.
Rooker returned from the disabled list to win his 100th career game on Labor Day and the Bucs remained hot during the first two weeks in September, but the Expos were even hotter and Dick Williams’ young team led by powerful righthanded hitting attack featuring Dawson, Gary Carter, Tony Perez, Larry Parrish and Ellis Valentine inched ½ game ahead of the Bucs when the Pirates came into Montreal on September 17.
Don Robinson outpitched Expos ace Rogers, 2-0 to move the Bucs back into firstplace. Stargell hit a two run homer in the 11th the next night to claim a game slowed by a 54 minute rain delay.
Moving on to Philadelphia in first place, the Pirates once again rallied to beat the Phillies. This time a pinch hit by little used Manny Sanguillen, a hero of the 1971 team was the victory blow, but the Phillies gained a little revenge on the Pirates by beating them in the next two as Montreal beat the Mets twice.
Sanguillen was not the only hero remaining from 1971. Stargell provided a big bat all year and Kison, free of his chronic blisters was winning more consistently than ever. Stennett also remained with the team, but his role had greatly diminished after Madlock joined the team and as the Bucs headed for Chicago, Peterson announced the team had purchased Dock Ellis, the former controversial ace righthander. Ellis proudly proclaimed, “I’ll die a Pirate,” and the move was necessitated as Candelaria and Don Robinson were nursing injuries which thinned the staff.
The Bucs won two of three in Wrigley, but the 3-3 road trip saw the team fall ½ game behind the Expos, as the teams began their final head-to-head series on September 24, the final Monday of the regular season with yet another doubleheader. The Bucs took the opener behind excellent relief work from Tekulve, but Montreal rallied in the second game despite gutsy work from Ellis and Coleman. The third contes would be pivotal and the Pirate lumber pounded Scot Sanderson, Bill Atkinson and Ross Grimsley for a 10-4 win. Ten was again the lucky number the next night as Kison allowed the Expos a solo run giving the Bucs a 1 ½ game lead for the flag.
The Cardinals defeated the Bucs 9-5 in a makeup game while Montreal had a doubleheader rained out. Both clubs were scheduled to end the regular season at home, the Pirates against the Cubs and the Expos against the Phillies. If the season ended in a tie, the Expos would make up their rained out doubleheader against the last place Braves.
September 28 was certainly a good Friday. Bibby pitched well in stopping the Cubs, 6-1, and Parker, on a late season tear, homered while in Montreal the Expos booted away their game in the 11th inning.
The season was far from over. Stargell, who had provided so many key hits as well as unfailing leadership throughout the year, committed a throwing error in the 13th inning to lose the game. The Expos, meantime, had won their game in the bottom of the ninth on a single by former Pirate Dave Cash.
September 30 was the Pirate’s traditional Fan Appreciation Day and the large stadium crowd realized there was more at stake than television sets and vacation trips. Stargell’s sacrifice fly in the first accounted for the first run of the game, while in Montreal, the Phillies scored to back ace Steve Carlton. Milner surprised the Cubs by bunting for a hit in the fourth and scored following hits by Madlock and Garner to put the Bucs, behind Kison, up 2-0. Stargell made it 3-0 with a homerun in the fifth. He received a standing ovation as he crossed homeplate and the applause didn’t end until “Pops” took a curtain call. Kison gutted the game out into the sixth. Pitching without his best stuff, the righthander did not strike out a batter, but more importantly did not allow a run until the 6th when Dave Kingman touched him for his league leading 48th homerun. Tanner brought in Tekulve to make his earliest appearance of the season in the seventh. The Three Rivers faithful received a boost as the bottom of the seventh was to start. With just about everyone’s attention focused on the field, a large, young man, staring blankly into space blurted out, “The Magic Number is One.” The crowd seemed to turn in unison to see the message repeated on the scoreboard in centerfield, followed by the information that Carlton had pitched a three-hitter, striking out 12 in beating the Expos, 2-0.
The Pirates responded with two runs, driven in on a clutch hit by Bill Robinson, batting for the first time in the game after entering as a defensive replacement for Milner. Tekulve held the Cubs scoreless in the eighth and the division race ended with Cub catcher Bruce Kimm popping out to Madlock. The Family had made it through the first challenge of becoming a World Champion.
Stargell, who’s statistics were far from the best of his great career, finally won a Most Valuable Player Award as his leadership was as recognized as his 32 homeruns and 82 rbi’s as being irreplaceable for the Eastern Division Champions. Actually, he ended up sharing the award with the Cardinals’ Keith Hernandez, but Willie expressed a humble pride in winning the award which had eluded him in 1971 and 1973 when he was a very deserving candidate as the top powerhitter in baseball. Parker’s great final week pushed his average to .310 and he slugged 45 doubles and 25 homers. He led the club with 94 rbi’s and his 109 runs scored was one behind team leader Moreno. Omar’s hitting slumped the last couple of weeks, but he still finished at .282 with a league leading 77 stolen bases. Moreno also did a good job with men on base, driving in 69 runs as a leadoff man. Many of The Antelope’s rbi’s could be attributed to the success of Garner, who, usually hitting eighth batted a career high .293 with 32 doubles and 11 homeruns. Newcomer Foli also had a career year at the plate. The perfect number two hitter to protect Moreon on the bases, Foli hit .291 with 65 rbi’s for the Bucs. The other in-season addition, Madlock hit .328 and stole 21 bases in 85 games. Tanner also got an excellent season from his leftfield platoon of Bill Robinson and Milner who combined for 40 homeruns and 135 rbi’s. Ott and Nicosia batted .279 as a catching combo. The excellent Pirate offense led the National League in runs and slugging, but showed its balance by finishing second in hits, homeruns and stolen bases.
Surprisingly, the Pirates won the division without a 15-game winner. Candelaria led the team with 14 wins, one of six pitchers to win more than ten games. Tekulve, Jackson and Romo, Tanner’s three main relief pitchers provided 28 wins and 50 of the team’s league high 52 saves. Overall, the team’s 3.41 ERA ranked third in the league.By Pirates Encyclopedia