After being as close to a perpetual contender as any team in the National League East, the Pirates went through what was to my teenage eyes the worst three years imaginable. 1984, 1985 and 1986 saw the Pirates finish dead last each season. Back then, I thought that three year stretch of futility and hopelessness was the worst the team would ever experience. As Bob Seger once penned, ‘Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.’
Massive changes took place in those three years. Chuck Tanner was fired following 1985. The stench of drug scandal that played out in the clubhouse right under his nose hung heavy in the air. The team nearly moved. New Orleans and Portland were major suitors as the Galbreath family looked to sell the team after a nearly 40 year period of ownership. Mayor Richard Caliguiri helped rally local business (notably PPG and Westinghouse) into purchasing the team under an ownership group called ‘Pittsburgh Associates’. The Pirates new front office was headed by Mac Prine, who was Chairman and CEO of Ryan Homes. Former GM Joe Brown was temporarily brought out of retirement to replace the ousted Harding Peterson. Brown retired again shortly thereafter (but not before selecting Barry Bonds in the first round of the 1985 draft) and was replaced by Syd Thrift, who quickly put his stamp on the team with a couple of shrewd trades. Jim Leyland was hired to skipper the team and things began looking up.
The club returned to a respectable mediocrity in 1987 and certainly made the rest of baseball perk up and say ‘What’s up in Pittsburgh?’ The team won 27 of the last 38 games to finish 80-82. The 1988 team would breach the .500 mark. They were never in serious consideration for the playoffs. They finished second in the division behind the Mets but a distant 15 games off the pace. But for the first time since 1981, Pittsburgh sent three players to the All-Star game – Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and Bob Walk.
The 1988 team had been built over the previous couple of seasons, with much of the talent being acquired in trades. A quick look at how players and pitchers who saw significant time in 1988 were acquired.
C Mike LaValliere – acquired in a trade on 4/1/87 along with Andy Van Slyke and Mike Dunne that saw Tony Pena move to St. Louis.
1B Sid Bream – acquired in a trade on 9/9/85 along with R.J. Reynolds and Cecil Espy. Bill Madlock was sent to Los Angeles.
2B Jose Lind – amateur free agent signing in 1982. Johnny Ray was traded to the Angels down the stretch in 1987 for minimal return (career minor leaguer Bill Merrifield and Miguel Garcia) to make way for the good glove/weak bat Lind.
SS Rafael Belliard – amateur free agent signing in 1980. One in a series of revolving shortstops between Dale Berra and Jay Bell.
3B Bobby Bonilla – originally signed by Pittsburgh as an amateur free agent in 1981, he was lost to the White Sox in the Rule 5 draft in 1985. But Thrift re-acquired him for Jose DeLeon in 1986.
LF Barry Bonds – sixth pick in the first round of the 1985 draft
CF Andy Van Slyke – acquired in the Pena deal
RF R.J. Reynolds – acquired in the Madlock deal
OF Darnell Coles – acquired down the stretch in 1987 along with pitcher Morris Madden from Detroit for Jim Morrison. Coles was then traded during the 1988 season to Seattle for Glenn Wilson
OF John Cangelosi – acquired in Spring Training 1987 from Chicago even up for reliever Jim Winn
SS Al Pedrique – acquired in May 1987 from the Mets along with Scott Little for utility player Bill Almon. Pedrique hit pretty well in 1987, but was awful in 1988 and never played regularly again
OF Glenn Wilson – see Darnell Coles
C Junior Ortiz – originally with the Pirates, but traded to the Mets for Marvell Wynne. He was reacquired by Pittsburgh in the 1984 Rule 5 Draft.
1B Randy Milligan – always seemed to be surly and was the Mets first round pick in 1981. The Pirate pried him (and a career minor leaguer) from NY during Spring Training in 1988 for catcher Mackey Sasser and pitcher Tim Drummond. Following the 1988 season, Milligan was traded to Baltimore for career minor leaguer Pete Blohm.
SS Felix Fermin – made up the catchy double play trio of Fermin to Lind to Bream. He was eventually traded to the Indians in March 1989 for Jay Bell. Originally signed by the Pirates as an amateur free agent in 1983.
OF Mike Diaz – ‘Rambo’ was acquired from the Phillies in 1985 for a minor leaguer. He was traded to the White Sox in August 1988 for Gary Redus. Diaz’ homer to beat the Mets on 4/20/87 (after having beaten them just once in 1986) was probably one of the top five most important homers of the decade for the club. It set the tone for the change.
OF Gary Redus – see Mike Diaz
C Tom Prince – fourth round pick of the Buccos in the January 1984 draft. Career back up who spent parts of 17 seasons in the Show with plenty of time in the minors.
P Doug Drabek – acquired during the offseason in November 1986 from the Yankees along with Brian Fisher and Logan Easley. Pittsburgh gave up Cecilio Guante, Rick Rhoden and Pat Clements
P Bob Walk – was released by Atlanta in Spring Training in 1984 and rescured off the scrap heap by Pittsburgh
P John Smiley – 12th round selection by the Pirates in 1983
P Mike Dunne – picked up in the Pena trade. He struggled in 1988 and was sent in early 1989 as the primary piece of a trade that landed SS Rey Quinones (another guy before Jay Bell)
P Brian Fisher – acquired with Drabek
RP Jim Gott – picked up off waivers down the stretch in 1987 after San Francisco jettisoned him
RP Jeff Robinson – acquired in a trade 8/21/87 from the Giants along with Scott Medvin. San Francisco got Rick Reuschel
RP Bob Kipper – part of the 1985 deal that saw Mike Brown and Pat Clements come to Pittsburgh from the Angels in exchange for George Hendrick, John Candelaria and Al Holland
RP Barry Jones – Centerville, IN native was the Pirates third round pick in 1984. Bucs traded him even up to the White Sox in August 1988 for Dave LaPoint
RP Dave Rucker – Sparky Anderson once said of him ‘If you don’t like Dave Rucker, you don’t like ice cream.’ Hmmm. After bouncing from Detroit to St. Louis to Philadelphia, the left handed Rucker was released by the Rangers following the 1987 season that he spent entirely in the minors.
SP Dave LaPoint – see Barry Jones. After a solid eight starts for the Pirates, he was lured to the Bombers as a free agent in 1989 and didn’t fare too well there.
RP Scott Medvin – acquired in the Reuschel deal. He was lost after the 1987 in the Rule 5 draft. But the Astros returned him. He was traded in 1990 to Seattle for Lee Hancock.
P Vicente Palacios – veteran of the Mexican League was picked up from the White Sox off of waivers in 1986 and developed a splitter. He spent parts of five seasons with Pittsburgh and was released following 1992.
If you do the math (which I did), less than 1/3 of all plate appearances from the position players were accumulated by hitters who spent the entirety of their career (to that point) with the Pirates organization. Less than 20% of all the innings pitched were tossed by players the Pirates had developed.
The 1988 team started the season with a 16-6 April. But the Mets took over in early May as Pittsburgh’s last day in first was May 2nd. A stretch of 12 wins in 13 games that surrounded the All-Star break left them only a half game out on July 21st. But the Pirates would fade quickly as they lost six of eight games against the Mets in late July and early August. By Labor Day weekend, the Pirates had fallen 10 games back.
Bonds, Bonilla and Van Slyke were the offensive stalwarts. All three hit 20 or more homers. Bonilla and Van Slyke each drove in 100 runs. Van Slyke scored 101 and led the league in triples with 15 and swiped 30 bases. The rotation was anchored by Drabek, Walk and Smiley. Each made 32 starts. Drabek led the club with 15 wins and almost 220 innings pitched. Walk topped the staff in ERA and Smiley led the club in whiffs. Jim Gott was the closer. He earned 34 saves in 1988 to set a new franchise record. Robinson and Jones were the primary right handed relievers, while Kipper and Rucker were the most often used lefty relievers.
The Pirates rolled into St. Louis on September 19th for a three game set, resting on 79 wins. On Friday R.J. Reynolds singled in Felix Fermin in the ninth for win #80. Reynolds was the hero again the next game. He poked a two run single in the 8th to put the Pirates up 2-1 in what would be a 5-1 victory.
On Wednesday September 21st, John Smiley gave up a one out single to Ozzie Smith in the first inning and then gave up just one more hit in firing a complete game two hitter. Benny Distefano bopped a three run homer in the eighth that sealed the loss for former Bucco Jose DeLeon. Pittsburgh’s 5-0 win capped a three game sweet of St. Louis and left the Pirates with 82 victories.
The Pirates would win just three of their final nine games to wind up at 85-75 (not a typo – the club apparently had two games rained out and not made up). The Pirates made a couple of off season moves to bolster the club. Jay Bell was acquired from Cleveland. Neal Heaton was picked up from Montreal. Bill Landrum was signed as a free agent. But the 1989 Pirates would take a step back. They fell below .500 on the season. But starting in 1990, the Pirates dominated the National League East for three straight wonderful, yet unfufilling seasons.