The Most Disappointing Season For…The Pittsburgh Pirates

The 1980 Pittsburgh Pirates
Record: 83-79 (3rd NL East, 6th out of 12 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 83-79
Runs Scored: 666 (5th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 646 (6th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 98-64
Manager: Chuck Tanner

Hype: An almost intact Fam-I-Lee was coming back to defend its World Series title. Watch out, National League!

The Gory Details:
“What you get and what you see
Things that don’t come easily
Feeling happy in my pain
Icicles within my brain
(cocaine)”

Stargell, Milner, Garner, Madlock, Foli, Bill Robinson, Moreno, Parker, Ott, Lacy, Blyleven, Candelaria, Bibby, Don Robinson, Tekulve, Romo, Jackson. Add to that a recovering Rhoden and you have a team ready for domination.

This was a team that finally got past the Phillies, beat back a challenge by the Expos, swept the Reds in the NLCS and came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Orioles in the Series.
This team had depth everywhere, a great, proven rotation and a tough-as-nails bullpen.

“My eyes are blind but I can see
The snowflakes glisten on the tree
The sun no longer sets me free
I feel the snowflakes freezing me”

The Pirates certainly picked up right where they left off, ending April at 11-5 and 1 ½ games ahead of everyone in the NL East. They had some struggles in May, but ended the month one game ahead of Philadelphia and three up on Montreal. This may be a pretty close race, but the Pirates were a deep, experienced team.

June was tough. A doubleheader loss to Atlanta put them in third place, but just one game behind. As the calendar turned to July, they were 38-34 and three games behind. You had three good teams in the East and they were going to knock everyone around.

Their offense, which was dominating the league in April, was struggling now. Willie Stargell was hurt a bit. Dave Parker’s power waned; he had just one home run in June. John Milner got off to a horrible start.

What was most concerning was the struggles of the rotation. Candelaria, Blyleven and Don Robinson all had slumps during the month. Only Jim Bibby and pickup Eddie Solomon were pitching up to expectations. Bullpen master Enrique Romo struggled in June as well – probably from overuse.

Still, they weren’t total out of it and had three months to turn it around. There were bright spots – Lee Lacy, Bill Robinson and especially Mike Easler were doing their part, and if the game got to the late innings Kent Tekulve was as dependable as they come.

“Let the winter sunshine on
Let me feel the frost of dawn
Build my dreams on flakes of snow
Soon I’ll feel the chilling glow”

After the All-Star break Pittsburgh got it in gear. They reeled off a seven game winning streak and were 14-4 after the break as of July 28th. They regained the lead and were 3 ½ games up on Montreal, and five on the Phillies, who seemed to be fading. The Fam-I-Lee was primed for a pennant run.

They stumbled a bit after that – losing six in a row on a west coast swing which included a double header loss to the last place Padres. Coming home, though, they swept doubleheaders from the Cubs and Phillies and took three of four from the Expos.

On Tuesday, August 19th the Pirates were 67-52, two games ahead of Montreal and 2 ½ up on Philadelphia. Pittsburgh was targeted to win 91 but certainly a finishing kick could keep them close to winning in the mid-90’s, which should be enough.

They went on the road and were swept by the Braves, but then turned around and swept the Reds. They came home for a 10-game homestand against the NL West. Houston was a good team, but the Reds were just O and the Braves languishing under .500.

“Don’t you think I know what I’m doing
Don’t tell me that it’s doing me wrong
You’re the one that’s really the loser
This is where I feel I belong”

You really can’t have a bigger disaster than that homestand. The Braves swept them, beating up Biobby and Don Robinson and getting to Tekulve to steal one in the 10th inning. The Reds came in and Paul Moskau, of all people, shut them out.

Then the Reds beat Tekulve in the late innings too and topped Bibby and Blyleven. The calendar then turned to September.

The reeling Pirates were still in first place, ½ game up. They lost the first game of a doubleheader to the Astros, won the second, and then won the series finale. A 2-8 mark during that time put them ½ game behind the Phils in second and just ½ ahead of the Expos.

Upcoming was a 10-game road trip, including games against the Phillies and Montreal. They needed to turn this around. They needed the veteran pitchers, they needed the veteran hitters.

Tekulve lost two more in the late innings to the Braves, and Blyleven lost a close one as well to them. (The Pirates ended up 1-11 against Atlanta in 1980 – just awful).

Moving to Philadelphia, the bullpen let them down again – as the Phils crushed Romo and Tekulve in the late innings, and then Tekulve blew his 11th save the next night after they actually scored four runs against Steve Carlton, leaving September call-up Mark Lee to lose the game in the 14th.

Finally pulling their head out of their ass, Pittsburgh won the next three of five on the road trip. They had fallen to third place and were 4 ½ games out of first. The good thing they had another homestand upcoming, with the Phils and Expos sandwiching a three game set against the moribund Mets and the meh Cardinals.

“Kiss the world with winter flowers
Turn my days to frozen hours
Lying snowblind in the sun
Will my ice age ever come?”

They needed sweeps – they got splits, except for the Mets, where they won two of three. Tekulve got hit again, as did Blyleven and Robinson. A 5-4 homestand left them 4 ½ games out with nine to play.

Limping to Chicago and New York, the Pirates meekly lost five in a row to fall to eight games behind before salvaging at least a .500 season. The dream of a dynasty was dead.

The blame could be cast anywhere. Stargell was hurt for half of the year (he was 40 after all), and Milner wasn’t up to the task of replacing him. Omar Moreno couldn’t get on base; neither could Tim Foli nor handyman Dale Berra.

The good work of Easler, Lacy and Robinson was offset by those troubles and a disturbing lack of power from Parker, who had lost 13 home runs between 1978 and 1980.

Bibby was a rock, but Candelaria, Blyleven and Robinson all struggled at times, and Rick Rhoden was just average in coming back from injury. Tekulve went 8-12 as a reliever and blew 11 saves. Romo blew seven himself. The bullpen was saved by rookie phenom Rod Scurry, though, or it could have been worse.

Five years later, it was revealed that several players of this era of the Pirates were heavy users of cocaine. Berra, Parker, Lacy and Scurry were all suspended or reprimanded. Scurry, as you know, was a very tragic figure in all of this.

Milner escaped suspension as he was retired, but claimed he got greenies from Stargell and bought coke in the bathroom of Three Rivers during a game in 1980. Cocaine played a part in this season for the Pirates. Whether it was the cause of their disappointing season or just a coincidence is up for debate.

Whatever the reason, the Pirates slipped further into oblivion before bottoming out and rejuvenating themselves with homegrown stars.

*Lyrics to “Snowblind” by Black Sabbath, written by Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne.

Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Easler (4.1) and Lacy (4.0) were the two best players on the team in terms of WAR, and they were part-timers to start the year. Hmmm…

Honorable Mention Team: Pittsburgh finished just three games behind the Dodgers in 1966 and terrorized the league on offense (1st in OPS, 2nd in runs). The trio of Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Donn Clendenon were fearsome, Matty Alou hit .342 and Manny Mota .332.

In 1967, though, the team fell to 8th in home runs, and their pitching, which was adequate in 1966, failed them. They wasted an MVP caliber season from Clemente thanks to a staff which was 9th out of 10 in runs allowed. A promising team languished at 81-81 in 6th place.

Bad Blast from the Past: The 1909 Pirates were dominant, winning 110 games thanks to Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and ace pitchers like Vic Willis, Howie Camnitz and Babe Adams. They were solid top to bottom, especially after they traded for third baseman Bobby Byrne.

Everyone fell way off in 1910, except for Adams and Byrne (Wagner had a great season but non an exceptional one). The Pirates sold Willis to St. Louis and couldn’t replace his pitching. The result was a third place finish 17 ½ games out of first behind the Cubs.

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