Continuing with the history of the joy of being above .500, let’s have a look at 1982.
After winning it all in 1979 and fading down the stretch in 1980, the 1981 season was nothing short of disastrous both for baseball and the Pirates. The 1981 strike commenced with the Pirates in fourth place and two games over .500. The split season continued with Pittsburgh finishing in last place in the second half of the season. The front office began reacting to right the ship as Johnny Ray was acquired from Houston in a trade that saw Phil Garner move over to the Astros. Ray, along with fellow 1981 acquisition Jason Thompson, would play a big role in the 1982 season.
Although the Pirates finished above .500 in 1982, they were never in first place. By the end of May, the Pirates were 11 games off the pace and nine games under .500. A solid summer effort left the Pirates three games in back of the Phillies after they split double header in Philadelphia on August 9. The Pirate were 3.5 games off the pace after a win from Randy Niemann (also acquired for Garner) on September 14. But the Pirates would drop seven of the next ten to fall 9.5 games back after a loss to Montreal on 9/25. The Cardinals went on a streak of 11 wins in 13 games to pull away from Montreal, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Side note: in 1982, baseball enjoyed parity that was unmatched in it’s recent history. Perhaps it was other factors, but my guess would be the biggest one was free agency. For the first time since divisional play began, no team in the Majors won more than 95 games (not counting the strike-shortened 1981 season). As a frame of reference, the Cincinnati Reds averaged 95 wins a year for the entire decade of the 1970s. 1978 began a stretch of ten straight years in a which a different franchise would take home a World Series – something that had never been done before or since. The winners, chronologically – Yankees, Pirates, Phillies, Dodgers, Cardinals, Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Mets and Twins.
Back in Pittsburgh, the offense was paced by four players. Thompson became one of the first players to hit 30 homers in both leagues. He knocked in 101 runs along with those 31 dingers. He also walked 101 times. Bill Madlock established career best with 95 RBI and hit .319. Rookie Johnny Ray played in all 162 games and finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting to Los Angeles media darling Steve Sax (Ray finished first in the voting held by The Sporting News). Tony Pena continued the impressive arc of his young career with a .296 batting average.
The pitching staff was anchored by John Candelaria, who led the starters in ERA. Don Robinson posted a team best 15 wins despite an ERA that was lower than the league average. Rick Rhoden topped the staff in starts and innings pitched. Kent Tekulve and Rod Scurry formed a solid righty/lefty duo out of the bullpen. Teke had 20 saves and a 2.87 ERA. Scurry saved 14 and had a sparkling ERA of 1.76.
Larry McWilliams tossed a complete game shutout against Montreal and recently deceased Charlie Lea on September 26, 1982 to send the Pirates to 81 wins. After dropping both games of a two game set in Shea, the Pirates returned home September 29th to a lackluster audience (4,930) to square off against front running St. Louis. The Cards got a cheap one early. Tommy Herr singled and moved to third when Pena’s throw to second on a steal attempt was bungled by Dale Berra. Herr moved to third on the error and scored on a single from Dane Iorg. Pittsburgh jumped on St. Louis starter John Stuper with both feet. Omar Moreno walked (one of just 44 walks he would get on the year as he posted an OBP of just .292). He was balked to second. Rookie sensation Ray doubled him in. Rattled, Stuper uncorked a wild one and Ray moved up. Mike Easler walked and Thompson doubled home both runners. After Rich Hebner singled, Jim Morrison hit into a double play for the first two outs of the inning, scoring Thompson with the fourth run.
Hebner singled in Thompson in the third to make it 5-1. But Bucco starter Don Robinson hit some trouble in the fifth. Pinch hitting for Stuper, Gene Roof singled. Roof swiped second. Mike Ramsey singled to Berra. Roof attempted to move to third on Berra’s throw to first, but Hedi Vargas – who replaced Thompson at first – gunned him down for the first out. Steve Braun walked. After a harmless fly ball out from future Pirate Lonnie Smith, Robinson walked Iorg to load the bases. The Cardinals top rookie – Willie McGee – singled in two runs. That knock chased Robinson to the showers. Enrique Romo relieved him and proceeded to pitch 4-1/3 innings of one hit shutout baseball to slam the door for the win.
Vargas would contribute the first two RBI of his career later in the game as the Pirates pulled away to win 7-3.
The Pirates would split the last four games to finish 84-78. 1983 would bring big changes to the club. Willie Stargell retired, leaving a gaping leadership hole that the team didn’t adequately fill. Omar Moreno left via free agency after 1982. Of the primary starting eight from 1979, only two remained in 1983 – Madlock and Dave Parker.