Back in August of 2019, I was looking through baseball cards on eBay, trying to buy some cheap older minor league sets of affiliates of the Pittsburgh Pirates. One of the cards I found during that search was from the 1977 TCMA Salem Pirates team set. The players name was Wink Cole.
I looked him up on Baseball-Reference and there was no mention of the nickname. In fact, I didn’t find him at first, then looked him up by his actual first name, which is Winston. He played five years in the minors, put up some decent stats, with some nice walk/strikeout rates and plenty of speed early in his career, but I was more curious about the nickname and an online search came up empty. I then found him online later that day and sent him a message. There was no answer until this February.
When I finally heard back, I talked to Winston Cole for a little bit, found out about the nickname and decided to write a Card of the Day article about the card I found 2 1/2 years earlier. We posted that article at Pittsburgh Baseball History two weeks ago and it’s worth checking out if you missed it back then. During that talk, we got into a little more detail than I shared in the Card of the Day article.
I asked Mr. Cole if he could expand on some of the things he mentioned to me, which is what you will see below. It was almost shocking to hear how far behind the Pittsburgh Pirates were back in the 1970s with player development. We have heard things over the years, especially with the current front office putting so much more energy and effort into the development side. Trust me, the things you heard from more recent years about the Pirates being behind the times in development, were actually much worse in prior years well before Ben Cherington and Neal Huntington took over. Even those pre-2008 years were much better than the stories I’ve heard from the late 1980s from two pitching prospects I talked to who were injured during their time in Pittsburgh and their careers fizzled out.
Even with all of that prior knowledge, I was not ready for the main story about the 1970s, and how far behind the times the Pirates were back then. Cole came to the Pirates from the Kansas City Royals on December 4, 1973 in a five-player deal that included Nelson Briles going to Kansas City. I was aware of the praise that the Royals received for their minor league academy, which pumped out some great players in the 1970s. Cole went through the academy, then got to join the Pirates in the lower levels of the minors, so he saw the development side for both teams.
The Royals were an expansion team in 1969, losing 190 games between their first two seasons combined. After going 91-71 in 1975, they made the playoffs in five of the next six seasons. The Pirates were basically at the same point in 1975, going 92-69 that year. They made the playoffs once in the next 14 years, which just happened to be their World Series winning season. The Pirates didn’t have any trouble finding talented players, but player development really seemed to be an issue and the story you’re going to hear will give some insight into that area.
Here’s the story of Winston Cole, told by Winston Cole, about his time with the Royals, the shock of coming over to the Pirates, as well as where things went wrong during his time in Pittsburgh. The last part talks about his injury and it came up after I noticed that he went from stealing 57 bases in 70 attempts during his first two seasons combined, down to 17 steals in 30 attempts during his final three seasons combined. Things have definitely gotten much better over the years since his minor league time.
Winston “Wink” Cole
by Winston Cole
I was signed out of high school by the Royals in 1972. They originally wanted to send me to Billings, Montana, but I didn’t want to leave right away because I was disappointed that I wasn’t drafted, and at the excuses I was given for not being drafted. So I was put in the Royals Academy and for me it was a great developmental tool.
Coming out of high school, I got all of my instruction playing in the summer leagues and that was limited. The Royals Academy taught me the correct way to bunt, field, steal bases, and run the bases. It also taught me the strategy of the game and focusing on everything that’s going on during a games. I also was given a class in Personal Finance and Public Speaking. For me it helped as a player and person. The Academy usually started in September and lasted until Spring Training. We played or practiced everyday, usually both, mainly college teams, the Pan-Am team, and teams from Korea.
Usually you graduated from there to Rookie ball or got cut. I graduated to A-Ball, but was injured (wrist injury) the last week of Spring Training. I went to the Midwest League in Waterloo Iowa, still trying to play hurt. My injury wasn’t healing because of the cold weather, so I was sent down to Kingsport of the Appalachian League, which was Rookie ball, to finish the season. To shorten the story, by the time I was 100% healthy, I was in the Instructional league, where hitting coach Charley Lau was able to see the problem and correct it.
In the Instructional League, I hit everything and everyone, especially Pittsburgh pitchers, and I was looking forward to the 1974 season. However, I got home in November and a couple of weeks later I got the news that I was traded to the Pirates. I was looking forward to playing for Pittsburgh, and I’d admit that I was surprised at how many Latino players they had compared to the other organizations! Can you imagine Tony Armas spending two season in Double-A because there wasn’t room for him in Triple-A? The talent was over the top and raw, but there was no instructions whatsoever in Spring Training or during the season.
My biggest surprise and disappointment after joining the Pirates was the lack of instruction and guidance from the managers. I never saw a hitting or pitching instructor during the season, so for me I felt more like a number and not a person. Other than with teammates, there were no personal relationship with your managers. I knew all of my managers with the Royals on a close level. Pittsburgh even hired a couple of them. Buzzy Keller I think, and I heard that Branch Rickey III.
I really felt like a organization should invest more in development, especially kids signed or drafted out of high school. Trust me, I really wish that there had been more of an emphasis on player instruction and development, but it felt more dog eat dog, and you’re on your own. With professional sports being such a business, most teams are really interested in getting their investments back, so if you’re not a high round pick or undrafted, they don’t have anything really invested. First round picks are guaranteed a cup of coffee in the bigs unless they’re a total bust or injured. In the the 1972 draft, the Royals first round pick was Jamie Quirk, while UL Washington got a plane ticket when he signed, but both made it to Kansas City.
Pittsburgh was loaded during my time there. I enjoyed watching Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, etc. play. Think about Willie Randolph not being able to play for them! Amazing talent in the farm system. Alfredo Edmead was a great talent that had a tragic end. Alberto Lois was like the second coming of Roberto Clemente. Luis Salazar was the glove man with a steady bat.
When I was traded to Pittsburgh, Danny Murtaugh was the manager, and I was told that he asked for me in the trade because of the way I performed in the Instructional League. So when he died in December of 1976, I felt like they buried my career with him. I had a good eye for the strike zone and was a good base stealer, but I got injured in Charleston in late 1974 and Pittsburgh didn’t take the injury seriously.
I got injured sliding home and the catcher came down on my knee as he was making a tag. I limped off the field, but the knee felt bad. They sent me to the hospital and I was examined by a doctor who said that I may have a torn ligament, but I could play the next day. So the next day was the start of a five-day road trip and my knee was twice its size. So I was on crutches in a hotel room for five days, applying ice on the knee. We had no trainer in Charleston so I basically rehabbed it myself. I felt like a piece of cattle.
My manager at the time was Larry Sherry, and he kept telling me that if it didn’t get better, they were going to fly me to Pittsburgh. Two weeks later, there was no swelling, but he’s looking at me to tell him when I would be ready to play. Even though I couldn’t run, was called to pinch-hit! So without any instruction, l began running the stairs in my hotel, and then added ankle weights to the point where I was able to play. With a week or so left in the season, I was promoted to Salem to play center field.
At the end of the season I was sent to Pittsburgh to be examined by the team physician. I guess I was spoiled at Kansas City, because I thought every team had a trainer. With the Pirates, I was taught by a trainer in Spring Training how to tape my ankles, and then given the supplies to use during the season.
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John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.