Mark Madden: Ralph Kiner is greatest Pirates player
As the Pirates prepare for Monday's home opener, we look to the past. (No point looking at the present and probably not the future, either.)
Debate often rages over who is the greatest Pirate ever.
Everybody who saw Honus Wagner play is dead, and there's little video.
MVP awards (two in seven years as a Pirate) point to Barry Bonds, but lack of popularity negates.
John Steigerwald says if Roberto Clemente had played in any park besides spacious Forbes Field, he would have hit 900 home runs. Clemente was, indeed, pretty good.
But the greatest Pirate ever is none of the above.
It's Ralph Kiner.
Not most valuable, but greatest ever. The Pirates finished last three times and second-to-last twice during Kiner's seven full seasons with the team. As GM Branch Rickey once famously told Kiner, “We could finish last without you.”
Kiner's power kept attendance respectable at Forbes Field, with the faithful sitting through lost causes to see Kiner's last at-bat. Kiner enabled the Pirates to sell tickets to see a bad team playing at an old, rundown ballpark in an old, rundown neighborhood.
During Kiner's Pirates tenure, he led the National League in home runs seven consecutive times (1946-52). The left fielder also led the NL in OPS and slugging three times; on-base percentage, runs and RBIs once. Kiner led the league in a major statistic 16 times in seven years with Pittsburgh, including baseball's most storied category every season he spent with the club.
Bonds led eight major stats in seven years with Pittsburgh, Clemente four (all batting titles) in 18. The only Pirate comparable to Kiner is Wagner (32 in 18).
Career stats favor Kiner, too. His OBP, slugging percentage and OPS with Pittsburgh all top Bonds, Clemente and Wagner. (The all-time team leader in all three categories is Brian Giles, who played outfield from 1999-2003. Maybe Giles is the greatest Pirate ever. Maybe he had a little help.)
Right about now, Clemente spokesmen chime in about his defense, his throwing, his running, his grace, his winning, etc.
Clemente won two World Series to Kiner's none. Clemente's teams were a lot better.
But baseball gets broken down to numbers, period. We get told what statistics count. Kiner tops Clemente in all those.
Take out the romance and it's clear: Kiner is greater than Clemente and any other Pirate. Wagner comes closest. Numbers can't be adjusted or diminished for the sake of an argument's convenience.
Kiner, by the way, hit many of his home runs in spacious Forbes Field. But the dimensions in left and left-center were shortened by 30 feet during Kiner's heyday via creative placement of the bullpens: 335 down the line and 376 in left-center. It was “Kiner's Korner.”
Not short, but not far. Give the people what they want.
Kiner's window was brief. He played just two more big-league seasons after the Pirates traded him to the Chicago Cubs in 1953. He retired following the 1955 season because of a back injury. Kiner was 32 when he quit.
In keeping with Kiner's legacy, the most interesting thing about this year's Pirates might be seeing how many tickets get sold.
Pirates attendance dropped 600,000 over the past two seasons. Don't expect a precipitous decline this year. Most people who were going to stop going (or go less) probably already have.
Don't expect a precipitous decline in the Pirates' record, either: Corey Dickerson will approximate Andrew McCutchen's production. Gerrit Cole was a bum in 2017. Somebody will do roughly what he did.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).