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The Eighties: A terrible time of trial and error

Three Rivers Stadium: 1970-2000

Friday, September 29, 2000

By Ron Cook, Post-Gazette Columnist

Don't let anyone tell you the Pirates didn't have a wild, champagne-soaked celebration in the 1980s. It's a lie. The players popped the corks late in the 1987 season when they realized they weren't going to finish in last place.

The Pirates had a new manager at spring training, 1986: Jim Leyland. (Post-Gazette) 

It was that kind of decade.

No division titles. Three consecutive last-place finishes in 1984-86, including the worst record in baseball in 1985. The near-demise of the franchise. The Pittsburgh drug trials, involving some of the biggest names in the game and, almost unbelievably, the Pirate Parrot.

Even Willie Stargell was booed at Three Rivers Stadium.

No one who watched Stargell lead the 1979 We-Are-Family Pirates to the world championship could have predicted any of it. The team won six division championships in the 1970s and another World Series in 1971.

Sadly, Pittsburgh baseball fans learned nothing lasts forever.

At least the Pirates were competitive in the early-1980s. In 1983, they were tied for first place with the Philadelphia Phillies Sept. 17 before losing eight of their final 14 games and finishing second. Few guessed that would be the team's last hurrah of the decade.

But the roster was changing dramatically. In 1979, the Pirates were led by Stargell, Dave Parker, Bill Madlock and Phil Garner. By 1985, the stars -- if that's what you want to call them -- were Sixto Lezcano, Steve Kemp, Johnnie LeMaster and Joggin' George Hendrick.

Baseball in Pittsburgh almost didn't survive.

Teams have had worse years than the 1985 Pirates, but none comes to mind. The club went 57-104. General Manager Harding "Pete" Peterson was fired in May, Manager Chuck Tanner after the season. Only 735,900 fans came to Three Rivers Stadium.

Even when Pittsburgh tried to support the Pirates, it backfired. A crowd of 31,384 turned out for a game against the Chicago Cubs June 30 -- Ballot by Ballpark day. The fans ended up booing the home team during a 9-2 loss.

"I don't believe the people of Pittsburgh want baseball here," infielder Jim Morrison said that day. "I think it's time to move on to a town where they appreciate baseball."

Morrison had no idea how close the Pirates would come to leaving. The Galbreath family, long-time owners of the team, had put it up for sale after the 1984 season. The franchise was hemorrhaging money. Finding a local buyer seemed unlikely.

It wasn't just the losing. Talk of cocaine abuse in baseball was everywhere in 1985. Several Pirates -- Parker, Dale Berra, Rod Scurry, Lee Mazzilli, Lee Lacy, John Milner -- and other notable major-league players -- Keith Hernandez, Lonnie Smith, Tim Raines -- were called before a Pittsburgh grand jury. Their testimony led to the drug trials, which made national headlines in September 1985.

The problem wasn't just with the Pirates and in Pittsburgh, but it was portrayed that way nationally. Testimony revealed that Scurry once went looking for cocaine during the late innings of a Pirates game. Drug dealers frequented the Pirates' clubhouse. Milner bought two grams of cocaine for $200 in the bathroom stalls at Three Rivers Stadium during a Pirates-Houston Astros game in 1980.

Even the Pirate Parrot, Kevin Koch, was implicated for buying cocaine and introducing players to a drug dealer.

Seven drug dealers pleaded guilty or were convicted of selling cocaine to players. The players paid a price with their reputation. Parker probably cost himself a better shot at the Hall of Fame. Berra's career ended prematurely.

Scurry died a cocaine-related death in 1992 at 36.

"It was a sad chapter for the game of baseball, a sad chapter for the city of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh organization," former Pirates President Carl Barger said.

That didn't stop Barger, a prominent lawyer, from leading a push to keep the Pirates in town. Rallying behind Mayor Richard Caliguiri, he and other local business leaders put together a consortium of 13 corporations and individuals, including USX, Alcoa, Westinghouse and PPG Industries, that bought the team from the Galbreaths for $22 million on Oct. 2, 1985.

The new owners didn't just save the franchise, it started it back on a path toward winning. It hired Syd Thrift, who had been out of baseball for nine years, as general manager. Thrift then hired Jim Leyland as manager. Leyland, a little-known third-base coach for Tony La Russa's Chicago White Sox, had managed 11 years in the minors.

Their work in Pittsburgh looked impossible.

"It ain't easy resurrecting the dead," Thrift said.

But resurrect is what he and Leyland did. Former long-time General Manager Joe L. Brown, , started the job by drafting Barry Bonds and trading Madlock to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Sid Bream and R.J. Reynolds. Thrift did his part with three terrific deals. He traded Jose DeLeon to the Chicago White Sox for Bobby Bonilla; Rick Rhoden, Cecilio Guante and Pat Clements to the New York Yankees for Doug Drabek, Brian Fisher and Logan Easley; and, in the topper on April Fool's Day 1987, he traded popular Tony Pena to the St. Louis Cardinals for Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere and Mike Dunne.

"Now, that was a trifecta," said Thrift, a man of some ego, who once proclaimed, "If I ever leave Pittsburgh, it will be worse than Gretzky leaving Canada."

The 1986 Pirates lost 98 games, including 17 of 18 to the world champion New York Mets. Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden called the Pirates "a Mickey Mouse organization" and compared them to a Little League team.

It's no wonder the Pirates celebrated in 1987. For much of the summer, they battled the Cubs to avoid last place before putting together a 20-11 record in September. To see the pandemonium in their clubhouse after their 6-4 win against the Phillies Oct. 2 clinched at least fifth place you would have thought they had won the pennant.

"We got kicked around a little. I don't think the city deserved it and I don't think the club deserved it," Leyland said, tears and champagne rolling down his face.

"It will be nice to not have someone saying all winter that this is a last-place club."

For a long time in 1988, it looked as if people might end up calling the Pirates division champs. They hung with the Mets into late-June when Howard Johnson hit a two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning, game-tying home run off closer Jim Gott before 41,217 fans at Three Rivers Stadium. That eventual 8-7 defeat damaged the Pirates' hopes. Six Mets wins in eight games against them on consecutive weekends in late-July and early-August killed them. They finished second with an 85-75 record.

Still, the 1988 Pirates won back the fans.

Attendance was a franchise-record 1,866,713. The team announced its first operating profit since 1971.

Not all of the crowds were happy, though. Stargell was booed in May when he returned as Tanner's third-base coach with the Atlanta Braves. A planned Willie Stargell Night at Three Rivers Stadium, in honor of his election to the Hall of Fame, had been canceled two weeks earlier. It was leaked to the media that Stargell had wanted a luxury sports car to take part.

"Anyone who knows me knows that wasn't true," Stargell said.

"I want to apologize to you for the people who booed you," an emotional Tanner said. "They didn't deserve to have you. You never should have been a Pirate."

The Pirates couldn't wait for 1989, but their season ended before it really started. Gott blew out his right elbow in the third game April 6. Van Slyke went on the disabled list April 14 with a rib-cage muscle strain and missed a month. Bream tore up his right knee that same day. LaValliere blew out his left knee April 16. What was left of the Pirates finished in fifth place with a 74-88 record.

Their much-anticipated division championship -- the first of three in a row -- would have to wait until 1990.

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