The early 1990s were boom times for baseball in the city of Pittsburgh. They saw three straight division championship teams and the 1990 Pittsburgh Pirates were the team to start the run.
Three years earlier Jim Leyland took over the managerial reins of a franchise in a mess that had not been relevant since it’s 1979 World Series title. In spite of not having a shutdown reliever, Leyland adroitly handled his bullpen, helped manage the pitching staff to the third-best ERA in the National League and was a landslide winner for NL Manager of the Year.
Leyland wasn’t the only landslide winner of a major award. Doug Drabek went 22-6 and finished with a 2.76 ERA. He ran away with the Cy Young Award, getting 23 of a possible 24 first-place votes. Barry Bonds did the same in the MVP balloting, capping off a year where the 25-year-old finished with a .406 on-base percentage, led the National League in slugging at .565, hit 33 home runs, drove in 114 runs and score 104 more and stole 52 bases.
The one stray MVP vote mysteriously not cast for Bonds still went to a Pirate—fellow corner outfielder Bobby Bonilla, who posted a .518 slugging percentage, hit 32 home run, had 120 RBI and scored 112 runs.
These three stars—Bonds, Bonilla and Drabek—combined with the star in the dugout—were the headliners. Other productive players included first baseman Sid Bream, centerfielder Andy Van Slyke and a quality bench that had at least four players that hit well enough to be starters and were moved in and out of the lineup by Leyland.
Pittsburgh got the season off to an auspicious beginning when they bashed the New York Mets—the perennial power in the NL East from 1984-90–12-3 in Shea Stadium. The Pirates later went to Wrigley Field and swept the Chicago Cubs, the division’s defending champs (prior to 1994 the NL Central did not exist and the Pirates, Cubs and Cardinals made their home in the East).
By the All-Star break Pittsburgh was 49-32 and held a half-game lead on New York and were 3 ½ games ahead of the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). In early August, the Pirates traded a package of three players for starting pitcher Zane Smith. Even though one of the players was Moises Alou, who went on to a pretty nice career, Smith was a game-changer in this race. He made ten starts for the Pirates and finished with 1.30 ERA.
Pittsburgh still held that half-game lead on New York when Labor Day arrived and Montreal had fallen by the wayside. The Pirates and Mets were looking ahead to a September where they would play each other eight times—including the final three games in old Three Rivers Stadium.
The first meeting came in Pittsburgh, starting with a twi-night doubleheader (an old concept where the twinbill began around 5 PM) on September 5. Smith continued his magic, outdueling Frank Viola and winning 1-0 on Bonds’ game-winning RBI in the ninth. Jeff King homered twice in the nightcap to lead a win and the Pirates completed a sweep with a 7-1 win the following night.
Pittsburgh was 3 ½ games ahead, but they lost twice on their return trip to New York a week later, including a loss where Drabek was knocked around. The Pirates were also swept by Montreal and the margin was cut back to a half-game.
The season looked destined to end in a head-to-head clash, but Pittsburgh stayed consistent while New York struggled. The Pirates won series over the Cubs and Cardinals. The Mets were swept by the Expos, who continued to play spoiler. Pittsburgh built a four-game lead with four to play and had a chance to clinch on a Sunday afternoon before the final showdown with the Mets even began. Drabek capped off his career year with a three-hit shutout and the champagne could flow.
Pittsburgh went on to meet Cincinnati in the NLCS and took the first game on the road, winning 4-3 after spotting the Reds three runs in the first. The Pirates were in command with Drabek on the mound for Game 2 and three home games ahead of them. But Drabek lost a 2-1 duel to Tom Browning, Zane Smith’s magic ended in a 6-3 loss in Game 3 and Pittsburgh ultimately fell in six games. They were unable to overcome Bonds, Bonilla and Van Slyke going a combined 12-for-63 in the series.
The Pirates never did make the World Series, losing heartbreaking Game 7s to Atlanta each of the next two years. But 1990 still marked the year baseball came back to Pittsburgh.