John Steigerwald: ’79 Pirates reminder of difficulty current small-market teams have
What will happen first: An American walking on Mars or the Pirates going to another World Series?
Right now, I’d put my money on a Mars walk.
The Pirates celebrated the 40th anniversary of their most recent World Series win Saturday night — the same night America was celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. It was a nice reminder of just how hard it is for a major league team in a small market to win a World Series.
Kind of like landing on the moon, which was a lot harder than it looked.
There were lots of stories over the last few days about just how dangerous the trip to the moon was and how everything had to go exactly as planned to avoid disaster.
The Pirates have been a disaster for most of the time since they beat the Orioles in 1979, and seeing the players gathered on the field and shown on the PNC Park scoreboard Saturday night should have given every baseball fan an appreciation for the job general manager Pete Peterson did in putting that team together.
It’s also a stark reminder of just how unlikely it is the Pirates will play in another World Series.
That 1979 team was made up of a brilliant mix of homegrown players, free agents and trades.
Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Omar Moreno, Steve Nicosia, Ed Ott, Manny Sanguillen, Kent Tekulve, John Candelaria, Bruce Kison and Don Robinson were products of the Pirates farm system, which was overseen by Peterson before he became General Manager in 1977.
No team in baseball was better at finding good players.
Jim Bibby, who won 12 games in 17 starts, was signed as a free agent before the 1978 season. Lee Lacy, a valuable utility man, was signed before the 1979 season.
Bill Robinson, Phil Garner, Bill Madlock, Mike Easter Tim Foli, Bert Blyleven, Enrique Romo and Grant Jackson were brought in via trades. Peterson also made a trade to bring in Chuck Tanner as manager.
If it hadn’t been so well orchestrated, you might call it catching lightning in a bottle. Under MLB’s current economics, that’s the only way the Pirates are going to get back to the World Series.
Stargell, Parker and Tekulve, probably the three most important players on the team, would have priced themselves out of Pittsburgh long before 1979 under the current system. They would have left as free agents or been traded for prospects.
Madlock won four batting titles before being traded to the Pirates by the San Francisco Giants for pitching prospect Ed Whitson in June 1979. Guys who win four batting titles don’t come to Pittsburgh in 2019. Too expensive.
Players like Bibby and Lacy would have had Pittsburgh way down on the list of places they’d like to play if Stargell, Parker and Tekulve had left to play for big-market teams.
It’s a shame only old fans have a real appreciation for what it’s like to experience the Pirates making a World Series run.
Seeing the reaction from the fans Saturday at PNC Park and the feeling that still exists among the remaining members of that team should tell fans who have no memory of it just how special it is.
And there’s a good chance that it won’t happen again in their lifetime.
• My favorite memory of covering the 1979 World Series is from my trip to Baltimore for Game 6. The Pirates had been given almost no chance to win before the series started, and everybody outside of Pittsburgh said it was over after the Orioles went up three games to one.
But the Pirates won Game 5.
I was working for WTAE-TV, and in Baltimore, we were doing our production at our sister station, WBAL.
When I walked into the WBAL newsroom on the day between Games 5 and 6, I noticed every person was wearing an Orioles cap and a T-shirt. These words were written on both: Baltimore Orioles 1979 World Champions.
John Steigerwald is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.