On my way into the grocery store this morning, I spotted a fortyish fellow wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap. "It's a good time to be wearing that cap," I said. He smiled. "I've been wearing it proudly all my life. But this year is more like it." Indeed. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since they let Barry Bonds go two decades ago, but they're contending for a playoff spot. This weekend they're squaring off against my team in Cincinnati, my first-place Reds. There have been many times during the past two decades when it has felt weird to wear a Reds cap in public, but not this year. Thanks mainly to solid starting pitching and the lights-out relief work of Aroldis Chapman, the Reds are 4.5 games ahead of the second-place Bucs after riding seven innings of two-hit ball by Mat Latos to a 3-0 victory. Both teams are drawing big crowds at home, which hasn't happened in a long time. Good for the fans in those two cities.
It brings back great memories of a more innocent baseball time, the 1970s, when the Reds and Pirates were joined by the Dodgers as the dominant National League teams, representing the league in nine of the decade's ten seasons (only the 1973 Mets sneaked in, by upsetting the Reds in the NLCS). How long ago was it? The damn reserve clause still existed for more than half the decade. The designated hitter was still regarded as a reversible experiment. Night games at the World Series were a novelty. The decade ended with a title for "The Family," a far cry from today's teams with their "nations" and the Yankees with their own universe.
Though the cities are less than 300 miles apart, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh found themselves in different divisions starting in 1969, and over the following ten years met in the NLCS four times. In 1970, the Reds swept the best-of-five series despite being held to three runs in each game. Two years later, in a thrilling series, the teams went down to the final at-bat, with the Pirates taking a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5. Johnny Bench led off with a game-tying home run, and moments later the Reds won it on Bob Moose's infamous wild pitch. In 1975 the Reds pulled off another three-game sweep, but the Pirates finally had their turn in 1979, with "The Family" sweeping away the remnants of the disbanded "Big Red Machine."
It was in late August 1979 that my best friends in Las Vegas, George and Stew, made their most memorable trip--to San Diego to see the Pirates play. Pittsburgh natives and lifelong Pirates fans, they had met at Penn State, headed for Vegas as soon as they graduated, and are still there. On this weekend jaunt, they missed the Friday night game, in which the Bucs blew a lead in the eighth inning and lost. That reduced their division lead over the Expos to two games, while the Padres were fifth in the west. They were there for the amazing Saturday night game, which lasted 19 innings and took more than six hours to play. "Play all night!" they shouted when the game went to extras, and they loved every bit of it. They had nowhere to go, nowhere to be except back at the ballpark for the Sunday afternoon game. The guys did play almost all night, not finishing until nearly 2 AM.
And what a game they saw! For the first two hours or so, it was a great piching duel between two future Hall of Famers, Bert Blyleven of the Pirates and Gaylord Perry of the Padres. The home team scored two runs in the third inning, aided by two errors and a wild pitch, and Perry slid through to the ninth inning and still led 2-0 with two outs. But he couldn't finish it off, and with another future Hall of Famer, Rollie Fingers, on in relief, the PIrates tied the game on a passed ball. On they went.
Both teams scored in the 12th inning. Phil Garner doubled for the Pirates and scored on Omar Moreno's single, but the Padres tied it again on a two-out RBI single by Dan Briggs. It was after midnight by this point, but the bullpens gained a toehold, and while George and Stew earnestly did wish the teams would play till dawn, they were satisfied with the result. In the 19th inning, after the first two Bucs were retired, Bill Robinson doubled, Moreno was walked intentionally, and Tim Foli knocked in Robinson with a single. Dave Roberts, finishing off four scoreless innings, left the tying run at third in the bottom of the 19th, and the Bucs had a 4-3 victory.
The managers, Chuck Tanner and Roger Craig, managed the hell out of that game, using 42 players, including a dozen pitchers and ten pinch-hitters, issuing nine intentional walks, and calling for seven successful sacrifice bunts. The teams totaled 28 hits and 24 walks, and 40 runners were left on base, including an embarrassing 26 by the Padres. My vote for "player of the game" was San Diego's Ozzie Smith, who had three hits, one a double off Blyleven, walked once, scored a run, and turned six rally-busting double plays. No wonder George and Stew remember this game so well after so many years.
They slept on a hillside overlooking the stadium parking lot and rolled out in time for the park to open on Sunday. The Saturday extravaganza had drawn a modest crowd of 14,607, and the Sunday crowd was appreciably smaller. They bought cheap tickets and drifted down to the good seats, eventually winding up, it turned out, in a section assigned to the wives of the visiting team. So they sat with the families of their beloved Bucs and had a great time as the team steamrolled the weary Padres, 9-2, breaking it open in the second inning on a grand slam by pitcher Bruce Kison. Stew still savors the friendship he struck up with Cristal Haak, the wife of superscout Howie Haak, the man who helped bring Roberto Clemente to Pittsburgh. After the game, they hung around and got to meet Willie Stargell and pitching coach Harvey Haddix.
It was a golden weekend on the way to the Pirates' last championship. So George and Stew are hoping to rekindle some of the 1979 magic when they return to San Diego in a couple of weeks, this time for a midweek three-game series on August 20-22. I hope they have a great time and even hope the Pirates win for them, as long as my Reds prevail over the long haul.
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Speaking of wearing the team cap, in the winter of 1990-1991 I found myself in Monterey, California, one day, walking along Cannery Row and proudly wearing the cap of the Reds, who were fresh off their stunning sweep of the A's in the 1990 World Series. It was also not long after Reds owner Marge Schott had reportedly referred to star outfielder Eric Davis as "my three million dollar nigger," a gaffe which appalled the outside world but didn't shock the citizens of Cincinnati, who have always regarded Schott primarily as a dedicated philanthropist. No doubt I was daydreaming about Davis' first-game home run off Dave Stewart which had set the tone for the sweep, when a delivery truck ground to a brake-screeching halt in the middle of the road, and the driver, a young African-American who had spotted the cap, yelled at me, "You a Reds fan?"
"You from Cincinnati?"
"Well, if you get there, tell Marge Schott if she gives me a million bucks, she can call me anything she wants!" With that, he gave a quick laugh and the truck lurched down The Row. No further discussion was needed.