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Pirates After 53 years, Virdon cuts back on baseball

Sunday, October 06, 2002

By Rick Shrum, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Brian Giles smiled at the memory -- mainly because it was a memory.

Bill Virdon -- "I couldn't have been treated better anywhere than in baseball, especially in Pittsburgh." (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Pirates face many challenges on road to improvement

Baseball Notebook
Time for goodbye / Jay, it ain't so

It was late September, the final week of the season, and the Pirates' left fielder was reflecting on Bill Virdon, bench coach, outfield tutor and ominous taskmaster. The only 71-year-old who can outrun Joe Paterno.

Giles set the Wayback Machine to March and winced. "In spring training, he kills you. I don't know how a guy that old can hit fungoes for what seems like two hours straight. ... And I've heard he's not as strict as he was a few years ago."

Lloyd McClendon smiled and winced as well. He was a reserve outfielder with the Pirates from late 1990 through 1994, during the Jim Leyland regime, and his position coach over those last three years was "The Quail." Literally, a leaner, meaner Quail.

"I kid with these kids sometimes," said McClendon, Pirates manager. "They scream and holler about how hard he works them. I tell them they should have had Bill 10 or 12 years ago, when he was in top shape.

"In spring training, we'd have road trips and sometimes Jim would say, 'Stay back today.' Usually, you'd be as happy as a lark, taking it easy at camp. Then you'd realize Virdon was there. You wanted to pack your bags."

Now it is Virdon who has packed his bags. He quit last Sunday night, following the Pirates' season finale, a 7-3 loss in Chicago. The easy life in Springfield, Mo., was much preferable to the tedium of major-league travel, so he left after two seasons as McClendon's primary consultant.

Virdon will be a guest instructor at spring training. But for the first time in 54 summers, his main focuses will be "playing golf, relaxing, cutting the grass."

Stuffed among Virdon's socks and shirts last weekend were 53 years of professional baseball memories. The NL Rookie of the Year award. The fleet feet. The flawless glove. The game-saving, wall-bashing catch in the 1960 World Series at Forbes Field. The 1,596 big-league hits. The 995 managerial victories. The resurrection of the Houston Astros.

Oh, and Bob Moose's wild pitch.

The trim taskmaster is gone, but few are rejoicing. Virdon was a voice of experience for a team lacking same. He was an outstanding center fielder for 11 major-league seasons, 10 with the Pirates, and a big-league manager for 13, winning two division titles. He was a respected instructor, about hitting, fielding and life.

"Bill has done a good job working with the outfielders, and they're getting better," Giles said in the final week of the season. "He's helped me a lot, but the biggest thing is, he's helped me realize so much about the game. He hasn't forgotten how difficult this game can be.

"I know he's my coach, but he's become my friend. When I'm done playing, I can say I played for Bill Virdon for a couple of years. And that's pretty special."

Craig Wilson is likewise laudatory. Virdon has been instrumental in his conversion from catcher to first baseman/outfielder.

"He seems to know everything about the game," Wilson said. "He's helped me quite a bit on reads in the outfield, about where to go when the ball is hit."

McClendon is quick to praise Virdon for the defensive development of those two and Rob Mackowiak, who, according to the Pirates' manager, "has done a superior job in center field." Not that McClendon is surprised.

"I was a stocky little catcher who hadn't played much outfield. Bill turned me into a pretty decent outfielder."

Becoming a pretty decent skipper has been McClendon's personal objective the past two summers. To that end, he has leaned often on Virdon, who managed the Pirates, Yankees, Astros and Expos for a total of 13 seasons, from 1972-1984.

"There were probably times when we were in the air for two or three hours and I'd talk strategy non-stop with him," McClendon said. "He probably wanted to say, 'Shut up and go to sleep.' But I'd be foolish to not want to pick his brain because of his knowledge.

"Quail and I have had a tremendous relationship. He is a man of few words, but when he does speak, you certainly listen."

McClendon won't be listening to him next season, as Virdon decided against signing a third one-year contract to coach. He still loves the pro game itself, even after more than a half-century. His reason for quitting is plain.

"I'll always like baseball," Virdon said. "The only thing I don't like today is the travel. It's not the method of travel. That couldn't be better. It's just that you have to go and go.

"I never minded the travel before. You realized it was part of the game. But as you get older, it's less and less appealing.

"But I couldn't have been treated better anywhere than in baseball, especially in Pittsburgh."

That was the case most of the time. Virdon broke in with St. Louis in 1955, batting .281 and winning the rookie award. He was traded to the Pirates early the next season, and his .319 batting average was second to Milwaukee's Henry Aaron.

Virdon was a fixture in center field through 1965. He managed in the New York Mets organization for two years before returning to the Pirates as a coach. Then, following the World Series championship of 1971, Virdon succeeded Danny Murtaugh as manager.

The Pirates breezed to the NL East title in 1972, winning 96 games, and were three outs from the World Series. They had a one-run lead going to the ninth inning of Game 5 at Cincinnati. Virdon brought in his ace closer, Dave Giusti. Then Johnny Bench hit an opposite-field home run to tie the game, and several batters later, Moose unleashed the wild pitch that enabled George Foster to score the winning run.

"We let the playoffs get away," Virdon said. "It was a sad situation, not so much for myself. The players had gotten to the World Series the year before and they had a great year."

The Pirates -- and everyone else in the NL East -- struggled in 1973. Then in early September, his team foundering but contending with a 67-69 record, Virdon was fired by General Manager Joe L. Brown and replaced by Murtaugh. Virdon is the last Pirates manager to be dismissed during a season.

"I told Joe Brown that this isn't right." Virdon said. "I told him that if I had a man like Murtaugh in the wings, I'd hire him too. I eventually forgave Joe, but it still wasn't right."

From there, Virdon managed the Yankees in 1974; the Yankees and Astros in 1975; the Astros through 1982; and the Expos in 1983 and most of 1984. After saying he wasn't going to return in 1985, Virdon was dismissed by the Expos on Aug. 30, 1984 -- five victories shy of 1,000.

In New York, Virdon was one of many managers fired by George Steinbrenner, on Aug. 2, 1975. He also was one of many managers replaced by Billy Martin.

In three seasons, Virdon was named Manager of the Year by The Sporting News or by a wire service. But after 1984, he did not manage again. He was a hitting instructor with the Pirates in the latter half of the '80s and was on Leyland's staff from 1992-95.

"Managing was not as much fun as playing and was more tedious than coaching," Virdon said. "But I never really disliked any part of the game. There are episodes I didn't like. Nothing that I will mention."

The current Pirates? "I hope the team is on the rise," Virdon said. "Our pitching is a lot deeper, although you never have enough good pitching, no matter how many pitchers you have.

"I'm not going to get into specifics, but this team has some holes yet."

Including the one at bench coach.

Rick Shrum can be reached at rshrum@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1911.

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