Remembering the ‘We Are Family’ 1979 Pirates
Now that the Washington Nationals have clinched the pennant, the Pirates are the National League team with the longest wait since their last World Series appearance.
But if Pirates fans are forced to live off a memory of the team’s last appearance, Pittsburgh’s thrilling come-from-behind-victory over the Baltimore Orioles in 1979 is a pretty good one.
The Pirates clinched that World Series exactly 40 years ago Thursday.
During that championship season, the Pirates had a motto: “We Are Family.” It was borrowed from a song of the same name by a recording group called Sister Sledge, their breakthrough hit during those disco-crazed days of the late ’70s. It became the Pirates’ theme song.
And the Pirates players say it really was like a family.
“We just treated each other like we were brothers,” said bench player Mike Easler, who was nicknamed “The Hit Man” for his batting prowess. “All of us got along and if you didn’t get along with somebody, Willie (Stargell) made sure you got along with everybody.”
Second baseman Phil Garner, who batted an incredible .500 in the World Series, said Stargell — or “Pops,” as he was affectionately called — was the man who made the Pirates a family.
“He was so well-loved and respected by everybody,” Garner said. “We had guys from Panama, black players from the ’hood, white players from the ’hood, we had all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds. I think Willie Stargell’s presence and leadership held all that together.”
Stargell, who played first base, was the MVP of the World Series and the National League that season. He gave out “Stargell Stars,” gold stars that attached to a baseball cap, to players who made great contributions. And he gave virtual kicks in the butt to guys who needed them.
Like the time he reportedly told a struggling closer Kent Tekulve in one of the World Series games, “If you want to go play first base, I’ll pitch if that’s the way you’re going to throw to this guy.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me that Willie would say something like that,” said John Candelaria, a left-handed starting pitcher who combined with Tekulve to shut out Baltimore, 4-0, in Game 6. “Willie was the silent leader of the team. I still miss him. Great man. Great team.” Stargell died in April 2001.
“This team was much different than any team I played for,” Candelaria continued. “There were some teams that I won’t name that I can’t believe how quiet it was in their clubhouse, as opposed to the lunatics I dealt with here. We were boisterous in the clubhouse, but when we crossed the lines, the guys played. We believed in ourselves.”
“And the song ‘We Are Family’ helped,” added Garner.
Like all good families, they had a pretty strict but loving father figure in manager Chuck Tanner. Tanner’s public demeanor was that of a happy, easygoing guy. But Easler said nobody ever wanted to make Tanner angry.
“People don’t realize that they just saw the nice Chuck on the outside,” said Easler, who recalled once going into Tanner’s office to complain politely about his lack of playing time.
“I was trying to be nice. Chuck literally grabbed me and picked me up in the air and said, ‘Look, you just signed a contract, therefore you do what we tell you to do.’ I said, ‘Yes sir,’ and he put me back down.”
Shortstop Tim Foli said there were healthy rivalries but very little jealousy among the players on the 1979 Pirates.
“When you have a relationship with a group of people, it doesn’t matter who’s the one who takes you over the top or brings you down. You’re a team. That was a big deal with Chuck,” Foli said. “And everybody on our team didn’t care who the star was that day. Anybody could have been the star and nobody really cared because we won.”
The friendly rivalries often included good-natured teasing between players like right fielder Dave Parker and third baseman Bill Madlock, who were vying for the batting title.
“Dave would tease Madlock, ‘When the leaves, when the leaves, when the leaves turn brown, I’ll be wearing my third batting crown,’ ” Foli recalled.
The Pirates won the N.L. East with 98 wins and 64 losses in 1979 but still had to battle a slump or two along the way. Utility infielder Rennie Stennett said the players had unique ways to deal with the occasional losing skid.
“If we lost two games, that was a slump for us. And if we were on the road, we would use that as an excuse to have a party,” said Stennett. “Everybody would get together, put in like 20 bucks and rent a suite and get in there and have a few drinks and talk about why we thought we weren’t winning. And it never failed — the next day we’d go out and blow somebody out.”
The Pirates blew out the Cincinnati Reds in a three-game sweep of the then best-of-five National League Championship Series.
Overcoming the odds
But things were looking pretty bleak for the Bucs after they lost Game 4 at Three Rivers Stadium by a score of 9-6, falling behind Baltimore 3 games to 1. It was especially demoralizing that the losing pitcher was Tekulve.
There is an unwritten rule that when a baseball team loses, especially in the postseason, there is no postgame music in the clubhouse. But not this time.
“Chuck came in and said, ‘Listen, we’re the best team and we’re gonna win. Turn the music up as loud as you want,’ ” said Don Robinson, the winning pitcher in Game 2.
Sure enough, the Pirates went on to victory in the next three games, winning the series in seven games. They became one of only six teams in the 20th century to overcome a 3-1 series deficit to win a World Series.
True to their “We Are Family” ways, the members of the ’79 Pirates are pulling for the current Pirates to win another World Series, as far-fetched as that hope might seem with the team coming off a 93-loss season.
“I just hope that some time before I go wherever I go, that I would see another one here again,” Candelaria said. “Great city, wonderful people. I always loved it here.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].