Wednesday, March 09, 2011

RIP That Championship Season

Before any more time goes by, I wanted to say a few words about Chuck Tanner, who died a few weeks ago.

From the first time I dimly understood what baseball announcer Bob Prince was talking about on the radio, I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, growing up and forevermore (even if I follow the SF Giants a lot more closely these days.) Of all the managers the Pirates had since the 50s, I remember three: Danny Murtaugh, Chuck Tanner and Jim Leyland. Of those three, Chuck Tanner was the only one I met.

I interviewed him in his Pirates office for a piece I was doing for the New York Times Magazine on the relationship of Pittsburgh and its sports teams in the season after that championship year of 1979. I'd been in the clubhouse before and after a game, and it was afterwards I was finally ushered into his office. "Hello, son," Tanner said, with a smile. "What can I do for you?"

I don't remember anything else about the interview except that aura of a really, really nice guy. And so I wasn't surprised to read in Pittsburgh Post Gazette sports writer Ron Cook's memorial column that "Tanner did the right thing as much as any man I've known. He was, simply, the kindest, most decent person I've met in sports."

Tanner was manager of the 1979 "We Are Fam-a-lee" Pirates of Willie Stargell, and other players who projected a positive-feeling image, like Bill Robinson and Tim Foli. That 1979 team had a sense of possibility and even of destiny (I recall an interview on TV with Bill Robinson late in the season when the Pirates were behind Montreal and he said fans shouldn't worry, the Pirates would win the pennant, it was meant to be.) At the same time, the Pirates could be an overpowering team, especially with Stargell and the team's semi-official bad boy--Dave Parker--in the lineup. And Tanner was a wily baseball manager. All of that would come into play in the World Series when the Pirates were down 3 games to 1 to the Baltimore Orioles. They became the first team since 1906 to go on to win the Series, and they did it on the road. Bookended by the Steelers consecutive Super Bowl wins, Pittsburgh was the City of Champions.

There was a dark side to those Pirates that Tanner could be faulted for not seeing, or for overlooking. It was in later years that the players using cocaine were exposed, but the locker room on one of my visits in 1980 showed the signs--particularly (but not only) Dave Parker, who before a game manically threatened to cause me bodily harm if I quoted him, and after the game meekly apologized. But Tanner was still manager when that hit the fan in the 80s, and Cook says he always stood by his 1979 players.

Tanner was the last Pirates manager to win a World Series, and that distinction is likely to remain his. Over a beer in the press mess at Three Rivers Stadium in 1980, Harding Peterson, the Pirates General Manager, layed out for me the Pirates dim future: in a small market in the middle of other small markets, and in an area that wasn't growing in population or wealth, the Pirates ability to compete for players' payrolls with big market teams was dwindling.

The Pirates did manage one more world class team in the early 90s--the fabled Outfield of Dreams team (Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds)--but after winning the division, the Reds and the Atlanta Braves would always break our hearts in the championship series. The worst was in 1992, when the Pirates were one strike away from going to the World Series, only to lose improbably and dramatically, and for the city, tragically. Everyone knew that the team couldn't afford to keep the Outfield of Dreams together. Now the Pirates have been a losing team for 18 straight years, a record for a professional sports franchise.

Chuck Tanner managed in Atlanta for a few years after leaving the Pirates in 1985, but the Pirates were always special--he was a Pittsburgher born and bred. He remained a popular and sunny figure in Pittsburgh and in baseball, and in recent years worked for the Pirates as a consultant to the general manager. He'll always be associated with a special time in Pittsburgh, and he will be remembered as among the best that Pittsburgh had to offer. He died in February at his home in New Castle, PA. May he rest in peace.