A generation has passed by. Fans going from their teens to middle age. Thirty-somethings moving against their wishes to senior citizenry.
It’s been over 20 years since the people in western Pennsylvania have been able to see their Pittsburgh Pirates give them a winning season. Not see the playoffs mind you. Just be witness to a winning season as they wile away the years watching the waters of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meander past the Golden Triangle and become the Ohio River.
Twenty-two seasons ago the long-slumbering Buccos won more games than they lost. The 17-year locusts come around more often than does a winning season in the Land of Iron City beer.
But now, off in the distance, the long-suffering ‘burghers of the Pittsburgh area can hear the faint sounds of Bob Prince, undefeated champion of the “homers” in baseball broadcasting, telling them of the Green Weenie, a bug on the rug and a bloop and a blast.
“The Gunner,” as Prince was known, was insufferable to those not taken with the Pirates. For more than 25 years, “The Gunner” presided over Pirate broadcasts. He was paired with Jim “The Possum” Woods for most of those years.
When the sports world was dumbstruck in October 1960 by the sudden importance of youthful Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-deciding home run that slew the Yankees, it was “The Gunner” and “The Possum” telling the civilized world about its significance.
Prince invented a good luck charm he called the Green Weenie. It was a green plastic rattle shaped like a large pickle. If the Pirates got a bunt single from Groat and a home run from Dick “Dr. Strange Glove” Stuart, Prince would cackle and triumphantly pronounce it had been a “bloop and a blast.” A ground single that skittered through along the roak-hard surface at Three Rivers Stadium was a “bug on the rug” to Prince.
Those long-in-the-tooth Pittsburgh fans can also tell you about those 1960 World Champions that rode into immortality on the back of of infielder Bill Mazeroski’s Series-winning home run off New York’s Ralph Terry in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game.
Mazeroski’s 425-foot drive over the ivy-covered brick wall in left-center at Forbes Field came at 3:38 p.m. on October 13.
Prince told of the virtues of a team full of contributors that were herded together by Manager Danny Murtaugh and defeated the Casey Stengel-led Yankees in four close games. New York won lopsided verdicts by scores of 16-3, 12-0, and 10-0. But Pittsburgh won every time it was close and carried the day when Mazeroski, who had 11 home runs during the regular season, launched Terry’s 1-1 slider over the head of the retreating body of left-fielder, Yogi Berra.
Mazeroski was only 23. He could be shepherded through the season by Most Valuable Player/shortstop Dick Groat, outfielders Roberto Clemente, Bob Skinner and Bill Virdon and gritty third baseman Don Hoak, a 33-year-old with 16 homers and a .282 batting average.
The much-loved Murtaugh had pudgy Smoky Burgess and quiet Hal Smith as his catchers. Smith had only 258 at-bats, but slammed 11 home runs. His homer in the late innings gave Mazeroski his chance to win the 10-9 seventh game of the Series.
On Murtaugh’s long bench were Gino Cimoli, Rocky Nelson and Smith. Vernon Law was a 20-game winner and Bob Friend won 18 times. Harvey Haddix and Vinegar Bend Mizell, later a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, won 11 and 13 games respectively.
Elroy Face recorded 24 saves and had a 10-8 won-loss record. Fred Green appeared in 45 games and had an 8-4 record.
Earl Francis was a 24-year-old pitcher with a coveted fastball. Francis had pitched against the Jackson-Perks Post 71 American Legion team in Charles Town on one Sunday just years before he was a member of the Pirates in the 1960 World Series.
It was way back in 1979 that the Pirates last won a World Championship. Their lineup was full of hitters of every major league variety. Broadcaster Milo Hamilton was only too happy to pick up the nickname “Lumber Company” and run with it. The Pirate clubhouse resounded with the strains of “We Are Family” from Sister Sledge. Those Buccos had a team-wide toughness about them. Phil “Scrap Iron” Garner. Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock. Dave “The Cobra” Parker. Tim “Crazy Horse” Foli.
The usual starters were Rennie Stennett, Tim Foli, Bill Robinson, Ed Ott, as well as Parker, Madlock and Moreno. The unchallenged leader in the clubhouse was the 38-year-old Stargell. “Pops” would hold court and hand out stars to those players with clutch hits, fielding gems and nasty pitching performances.
That 1979 team had one of the best supporting casts in the history of baseball. There were no fewer than eight pitchers with at least eight victories. And none of them had more than 14 wins.
Jim Bibby, the man Manager Chuck Tanner selected to face Baltimore in the seventh game of the World Series, was 12-4 but had only started 17 games during the regular season.
Bert Blyleven, John Candelaria, Bruce Kison, Don Robinson and Jim Rooker all started at least 17 games. The closer was stringbean submariner Kent Tekulve and he won 10 times himself. He pitched in 94 games. Enrique Romo didn’t start a single game and yet was a 10-game winner. He was called on 84 times. One-time Oriole Grant “Buck” Jackson appeared in 72 games and had eight wins.
Garner hit .293 with 549 at-bats. John Milner clubbed 16 home runs. Reserve catcher Steve Nicosia batted. 288 and the always-smiling Manny Sanguillen was still available at age 35. Lee Lacy and Dale Berra were utility players with real value.
There were contributors everywhere. At every turn.
Those Pirates won the World Series. Trailing the Orioles three games to one, the Pirates won the last three games, prevailing 4-3 in the end.
Hamilton told people about it. The Pirates were the “it.”
And now we turn to the 2013 pennant scramble in the Central Division of the National League. The current-day Buccos just won four of the five games in a home-field series with rival St. Louis. As of last Thursday, the Pittsburgh lead over the Cardinals stood at 2.5 games.
Crowds are bustling across the bridges to PNC Park.
Can these no-name Pirates hold the fort? Can they actually win more games than they lose without Prince’s Green Weenie?