Ex-Pirates remember Chuck Tanner as a father figure
Mike Easler was slumping at the plate, another three or four strikeouts from a trip to the minors.
Five years later, Lee Lacy was little more than a utility man dreaming of becoming an everyday major league player.
In both cases, Chuck Tanner stepped in, infused confidence in the players and helped change the course of their careers.
Easler helped the Pirates win the 1979 World Series and hit .338 a year later. Lacy became one of the best hitters in the National League in 1984.
When Tanner died Friday in New Castle at age 82, Easler and Lacy were among those who wiped away tears to celebrate the life of the last Pirates manager to win a championship.
"He was one of the great guys of all-time," said Jim Leyland, who followed Tanner as Pirates manager in 1986.
Easler broke out of his slump briefly in 1979, hitting a pinch-hit home run against Mets pitcher Skip Lockwood and adding another a week later against hard-throwing Craig Swan.
"Chuck said to me, 'You are the Hit Man,' " Easler said. "When Chuck said that, I was like, 'Thank you, Lord,' because I knew he believed in me."
Lacy credits Tanner with making him one of the most marketable players in baseball in the 1980s.
"He gave me my first opportunity to be a regular player," Lacy said by telephone from Los Angeles, where he works with young people on behalf of the Dodgers. "He enabled me to further my career, which was always a big dream of mine. Chuck enabled me to be an everyday player. Chuck said I had all the tools."
Lacy, who joined the Pirates in 1979 at age 31, was largely a part-time player until Tanner made him a regular outfielder for the Pirates. He ended up finishing second in the National League behind Tony Gwynn with a .321 batting average in 1984. During the ensuing offseason, Lacy signed a four-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles.
"If it wasn't for Chuck Tanner, I would never, ever have had that opportunity," Lacy said.
Lacy called Tanner "a father figure, especially for me."
"If I had a problem, I could always come to him and talk to him about any personal problems that were going on in my life," Lacy said. "Chuck was way before his time. He was a players' manager. Nowadays, you have to be a players' manager to manage. His concern was always about his players."
Former Pirates relief pitcher Grant Jackson called Tanner "one of the finest men I ever met, on the field and off the field."
"I played for quite a few great managers — Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Gene Mauch — then came Chuck Tanner," Jackson said. "I learned lot from him, not just from how to play a game but how to treat people."
Former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass said Tanner never wasted a moment of his life.
"When I think of Chuck, I think of the gift of time and how Chuck has used the gift of time so wonderfully," Blass said. "We only have so much. He has given his time on so many occasions. I don't know anybody who used his gift of time any better than Chuck Tanner has."
Leyland said he and Tanner became best friends when both were scouts for different teams early last decade. He visited Tanner a month ago at a New Castle hospital.
"He was sharp as a tack," Leyland said. "But he was weak, and he was tired. You could tell he had had enough.
"This is a sad one. But he wouldn't want us sitting around talking about it. This is a celebration of life, not mourning (a death). He wouldn't want people moping around. This is a life that should be celebrated."