Kevin Gorman: Celebrating the 1979 Pirates, not the generational gap
For a 6-year-old Pittsburgh kid who needed nothing more than a ball and a glove to spend a summer day happily, the 1979 Pirates were my glorious introduction to baseball.
With the Pirates winning the World Series and the Steelers on their way to a fourth Super Bowl, Pittsburgh branded itself the City of the Champions. That’s a tag this city still owns, even if Boston has tried to lay claim to the title.
It was an amazing time to be introduced to the sports world, an escape for a steel town that suffered as its mills closed and families had to figure out their future. We could live in the present, enjoying the success of our sports teams and their superstars.
When we played pickup baseball games, using your imagination to create ghost runners, you didn’t just play a position. You became that player. You were Willie Stargell at first base or Dave Parker in right field. You were Phil Garner at second base and Bill Madlock at third. You were John Candelaria starting games and Kent Tekulve closing out a victory in his submarine style.
Actually, that’s not altogether true. You were Pops and Cobra, Scrap-Iron and Mad Dog, Candy Man and Teke. It seemed like everyone had a nickname, so they felt familiar. No wonder we sang along and danced to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” That’s what Pirates games felt like: a family reunion.
When the Pirates honor their 1979 World Series champions Saturday at PNC Park, it promises to be a celebration of when they were baseball’s best. But it also will serve as a sad reminder that the Pirates long have lived off their past and that nostalgia only can carry a town and its team for so long.
The Pirates haven’t won a World Series in four decades, a 39-year drought that ranks as the seventh-longest in Major League Baseball. That has caused a generational gap in the city, where almost anyone younger than me has grown up with no memories of the Pirates winning a World Series.
That’s four decades of frustration for Pirates fans, save a pair of three-year stretches from 1990-92 and 2013-15 when they made the postseason. In between, this city endured two decades of losing seasons, a drought of despair in a city of champions.
We’re spoiled like that.
Only the Washington Nationals, founded in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, and the Seattle Mariners, founded in ’77, have gone longer without making a World Series appearance. Everyone else in MLB has at least reached the Fall Classic.
No wonder Pittsburghers have turned their attention — and entertainment dollars — toward supporting the Steelers and Penguins. Since the Pirates last won a World Series, the Steelers have won the Lombardi Trophy three times and the Penguins the Stanley Cup championship five times.
A once-great baseball town has become a football town and a hockey town, even though it has a rich baseball history and one of the best ballparks in America. You could say the same about Boston and Chicago, home to Fenway and Wrigley. The Red Sox went 85 years between winning World Series titles, from 1918 until 2004. The Cubs endured a century-long streak, 107 years from 1908 until 2016.
Yet their fans remained fervent, hopeful even. They celebrated the game, cherished their ballparks and kept their fingers crossed that each year would be the year. Those waits are an eternity compared to the Pirates’ four-decade stretch, but imagine the outcry if this is only halfway to waiting for their next World Series title.
On July 19, the 1979 Pirates were four games out of first place. By the 95-game mark, they were 46-39. These Pirates were 45-50 going into Friday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies, 6½ games out of first, 4½ out of the wild card.
Those ’79 Pirates traded in mid-April for shortstop Tim Foli and in late June for Madlock, a two-time NL batting champion who would win two more in ’81 and ’83. These Pirates only addressed their issues internally, promoting minor leaguers and trading for pitchers Chris Stratton and Yefry Ramirez, both of whom had been designated for assignment. They have done this despite one of baseball’s lowest payrolls.
That the Pirates have neglected to help this team is a shame, especially given that they were in first place in late April. There is more talk of the Pirates being sellers than buyers at the July 31 trade deadline, especially after losing five of six on the road in Chicago and St. Louis after the All-Star break.
This is a fun team to watch and to cover, and the Pirates can only hope that kids today are trying to ring that bell like Josh Bell or become the Nightmare who closes out a game like left-handed flamethrower Felipe Vazquez.
For all of the Pirates’ ownership and front office talk about wanting to win a World Series, they have done little to provide this team the players to be a contender.
That shouldn’t stop fans from celebrating the ’79 Pirates, reveling in the return of the World Series winners.
But we only can dream about what it would be like for the Pirates to celebrate their ’79 champions with another World Series run, for these Pirates to capture the hearts of Pittsburgh kids forever the way their predecessors did 40 years ago. Instead, like ghost runners, the Pirates have left that to our imaginations.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .