John Steigerwald: Late Pirates GM Pete Peterson might never be matched
You may not live to see anyone else do what Pete Peterson did.
He’s the last Pittsburgh Pirates general manager to win a World Series. They’ve only won three in the past 94 years.
Harding “Pete” Peterson died Tuesday at the age of 89, and the fact he was a young 49 when he put that 1979 team together gives you an idea of just how long it’s been since the Pirates went to the World Series.
It’s been half a lifetime.
It’s not insane to suggest they might not win another one in the next 94 years.
There have been few nicer guys than Peterson on the Pittsburgh sports scene. He was accessible, honest and funny, but he got a raw deal at the end of his Pirates career and he was also the first of many Pirates general managers to be beaten down by Major League Baseball economics.
Free agency only had been around for one year when he took over as GM from Joe L. Brown after the 1976 season, and cable TV had yet to widen the gap between large and small markets enough to prevent the Pirates from competing.
Everybody with any interest in Pirates history knows Peterson made deals for shortstop Tim Foli and third baseman Bill Madlock early in the 1979 season that were directly responsible for them winning the pennant.
He also signed right-handed pitcher Jim Bibby as a free agent before the 1978 season, and Bibby went 12-4 as a starter in 1979.
The point is Peterson’s fingerprints were all over the Pirates’ last World Series winner.
By 1985, the realities of small-market baseball had become clear, and Peterson became one of the first victims. It was obvious to him that he couldn’t compete with the big-market teams for the top free agents, so he did the only thing he could do.
He started grasping at straws.
The straws had names like Gene Tenace, George Hendrick, Amos Otis, Steve Kemp and Sixto Lezcano. His only hope was to find a fading star who was looking for one more paycheck and might have at least one more good year left.
He produced the paychecks, the players produced ineptitude and eventually ridicule for Peterson. John Candelaria, a star pitcher and one of the many, let’s say, “difficult” guys on that “We-Are-Familee” team, referred to him publicly as a Bozo.
The drug trials in 1985 were the last straw, and Peterson was fired before the end of the season.
Things were bad in 1985, but more people were predicting flying cars by 2019 than no more World Series for the Pirates by then.
Peterson was the last Pirates GM to be given a fair chance to compete. He was minor league director from 1968-1976, when the Pirates were producing more prospects than any team in baseball. They won division championships in 1970, ’71, ’72, ’74, ’75 and ’79.
He still had Willie Stargell in 1979, and Stargell was National League co-MVP and World Series MVP. If current MLB economics had existed in the ’70s, Stargell would have been gone long before then. He probably would have been gone before the 1971 season when he hit 48 home runs.
Gone like Bonilla, Bonds, Drabek, McCutchen and Cole.
No World Series.
Peterson was the quintessential baseball man. He proved he knew how to win when he was on a level playing field. No Pirates GM has competed on one since about 1982.
Nor probably ever will.
The Bozos are the Idiots Who Run Baseball, who oversee a system that will require a miracle for any future Pirates general manager to equal what Peterson did.
John Steigerwald is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.