Saturday Morning Quarterback

Looks like old times in Pittsburgh
Sep 28, 2013



Bud Selig has announced his retirement as baseball commissioner effective at the end of next season.

He’s a man of many accomplishments and, in the eyes of many, just as many faults, in his running of baseball.

One of his accomplishments, which is usually found in the second half of the top 10, is the luxury tax and revenue sharing. No longer is the month of October the sole province of the one team which for most of Selig’s tenure could afford to be there regularly – the New York Yankees.

In fact, for the first time since the year he became commissioner, the Pittsburgh Pirates are playing October baseball.

And that is the subject of today’s column.

When I saw my first Pittsburgh game on television in the ‘70s, the Pirates actually looked like … pirates. Big guys swinging the big bats like Willie Stargell and Dave Parker. Big bushy mustaches like that worn by former UT player Phil Garner. Those guys had swagger.

And they wore multiple colored uniforms with old-style caps with rings around them, a relic of the 1976 season when certain teams and umpires wore them in recognition of the nation’s Bicentennial.

All the players lacked were the eye patches.

Known as the Lumber Company for their slugging in the early part of the ‘70s, they added speed in the latter part of the decade and became Lumber and Lightning.

The Pirates won for some two decades [taking three World Series championships] in part because they were one of the first teams to extensively scout and sign Latin American players and weren’t shy about loading the roster with African-Americans.

But that didn’t keep the franchise from plummeting to the cellar in the mid-‘80s in the wake of a drug scandal which caught about a dozen of the game’s leading stars [not all of them Pirates] in its web.

But Syd Thrift was hired as general manager in 1985, saw the shambles before him and lamented, “It ain’t easy raising the dead.”

Thrift forged ahead anyhow and hired Jim Leyland as manager. They oversaw the development of stars headlined by Barry Bonds.

As an aside, Woody Hunt was a young Cumberland coach then who spent his summers as a coach and manager in the Bucs’ low minor-league system. He even found time to help them during spring training. How, I don’t know since the Bulldogs’ season was in full swing by then. I was told back then that Woody’s CU assistant coach, longtime Lebanon High and Wilson Central coach Benny Jennings, was a big Pirates fan.

Hunt was gone from the organization by the time Thrift was fired in ’88 after clashing with the owners. But Leyland guided the team to three straight division championships in the early ‘90s.

Braves fans remember with great fondness the slide by Sid Bream [a former Pirate who had joined Atlanta a couple of years earlier] which beat Bonds’ throw to the plate and lifted the self-appointed America’s Team back to the World Series.

Pirates fans remember it with much heartbreak, as it marked Bonds’ final play in a Pittsburgh uniform and the end of winning in the Steel City.

Excessive spending on player salaries, which people had warned since the dawn of free agency in 1976 would make it hard for small-market teams to compete, finally caught up with the game. The Pirates unloaded most of its stars, as did the Oakland A’s.

Selig oversaw the work stoppage which led to the cancellation of the 2004 World Series.

The game returned, but the good times in Pittsburgh did not. Two long decades of losing followed. September and October were reserved for the Steelers.

Pittsburgh struggled with inept ownership [which I believe is the key reason franchises don’t win over long periods of time]. No doubt, Pirate brass and their small-market brethren could, and did, blame their plight on their miniscule television markets [compared to the Yankees]. But that didn’t keep Billy Beane from thinking outside the box to come up with a way for the Oakland A’s to win even with the lack of financial resources.

But Selig, who owned the small-market Milwaukee Brewers [who were going through the same trials and tribulations], gradually found ways for baseball to make more money. He devised a way to tax the high-spending teams and share revenue between clubs.

Neal Huntington, the modern-day Thrift, has overseen the rebuilding of the Pirates behind Most Valuable Player candidate Andrew McCutcheon and former Vanderbilt star Pedro Alvarez. After second-half collapses the last couple of seasons, they  are back in the playoffs for the first time since the first George Bush was president. They may win it all or be gone after one game [the Selig-inspired one-game wild card playoff]. But baseball matters again in Pittsburgh.

When I was growing up, a successful Pirates team was a big part of baseball’s fabric. And though I’m not a big Buccos fan now, it’s great to see them back in the limelight.

Wonder if Benny Jennings, now selling cars after retiring from education, is smiling over the development.


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