The Pittsburgh Pirates were the NL East’s flagship franchise of the 1970s. They won the division six times in that decade. Nine times they won at least 88 games. Two World Series trophies came to the Steel City—a pair of triumphs over the nearby Baltimore Orioles, including one to end the decade in 1979. The 1980 Pittsburgh Pirates made a strong run at replicating all of those feats. But a September fade foreshadowed a decade of non-contention ahead.
Willie “Pops” Stargell had been the hero of ’79, but the first baseman was now 40-years-old. He was still good, posting a .351 on-base percentage and .485 slugging percentage. But that was in just 231 plate appearances. John Milner started getting more time at first base and while his .378 OBP was solid, Milner lacked Stargell’s power.
The rest of the infield didn’t hit at all. Shortstop Tim Foli was there for his defense and not expected to produce offensively, but the other spots were a disappointment. Phil Garner had pushed Rennie Stennett out at second base during the 1979 title run, but Garner had an off-year. More disappointing was third baseman Bill Madlock, one of the National League’s consistently best hitters, slipping to a stat line of .341 OBP/.399 slugging percentage.
Dave Parker played rightfield and had won the NL MVP award two years earlier. 1980 was a tough year. He was limited to 139 games and only hit 17 home runs. The RBI total slipped to 79. And while he batted .295, the lack of walks led to a meager OBP of .327.
So how did Pittsburgh manage to rank fifth in a 12-team National League in runs scored? The first answer is that Mike Easler had the best year of his career in left field. His batting average of .338 keyed a stat line of .396/.583. Omar Moreno in centerfield wasn’t a good hitter, but any time he got on base it was as good as a double—Moreno swiped 96 bags in 1980.
And the Pirates had depth. In addition to Stargell, Lee Lacy and Bill Robinson had really good years in limited playing time. Lacy’s stat line was .394/.511, while Robinson slugged .463. It was enough to keep the Pirate offense afloat.
The pitching staff was hurt by the loss of reliable starter Bruce Kison to free agency, but the rotation of 1980 was still steady. Jim Bibby, at age 35, won 19 games and finished with a 3.32 ERA. John Candelaria and Bert Blyleven each had sub-.500 records, but the ERAs were respectable and each went to the post over 30 times, making handling the rest of the staff easier for manager Chuck Tanner.
Don Robinson and Rick Rhoden were reliable at the back end of the rotation. So was Kent Tekulve, Enrique Romo and Grant Jackson in the bullpen. Eddie Solomon swung both ways and pitched well both starting and in relief.
What hurt the Pirate staff was that while a lot of people were respectable, no one was really outstanding. So they settled for sixth in the National League in staff ERA.
Pittsburgh came out of the gate looking the part of defending champs. They went to Montreal, whom they’d battled with to the very end in the 1979 NL East race (prior to the realignment of 1994, the East included the Pirates, Cardinals and Cubs, along with the Expos—today’s Washington Nationals, the Phillies and the Mets). The Buccos won two of three north of the border.
Montreal made a return visit to Pittsburgh in April. Parker drove in three runs in the opener and the game was tied 4-4 going into the 10th inning. Stargell singled and was pinch-run for by Matt Alexander. A double by Madlock won the game. Bibby threw a complete-game shutout the next night, while Garner hit two home runs. In the finale, the Pirates and Expos again went extra innings. Again, Stargell singled and was pinch-run for by Alexander. Again, Alexander scored on a walkoff double, this one from Bill Robinson.
Pittsburgh got off to a 12-5 start and their lead in the division grew as high as five games in the early part of May. A trip to face a contending Dodger team in Los Angeles brought them back to earth with three straight losses. But the Pirates still reached the Memorial Day turn with a record of 22-15. They were a game up on the Phillies and plus-2 ½ on the Expos.
In May it was time to match up with Philadelphia, who had taken the NL East title three straight years from 1976-78 before slipping back the year before. The Pirates and Phils split four in Philly and then reconvened in Pittsburgh for a three-game set.
The Pirates won the opener, but trailed the second game 3-2 in the eighth. Phils’ closer Tug McGraw was on the mound. Stargell tied with a home run. In the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded and two outs, catcher Ed Ott singled home the winning run. Pittsburgh lost the series finale, but their lead in the NL East still grew to four games in the early days of June.
But the arrival of summer produced the first serious slump of the season. The Pirates lost 14 of 21 and fell 3 ½ games off the pace. They won a series in Montreal to start a stretch of seven wins in 11 games. By the All-Star break, Pittsburgh’s record was 42-37. The division race was red-hot, with the Expos in the lead, the Phils a half-game back and the Pirates a mere game off the lead.
Pittsburgh came firing out of the All-Star break with a 13-5 stretch. They won two of three in Philly, scoring 31 runs in the process. They won three of four at home over Los Angeles. In that series finale, the nightcap of a Sunday doubleheader, the Pirates trailed 7-6 in the ninth. With one out and the bases loaded, Milner coaxed a walk that tied the game. Ott again delivered in the clutch with a base hit that won the game. Pittsburgh was back up top in the NL East by three games.
A wild ride through August ensued. The Pirates lost six straight. They won eight straight. They continued their mastery of the Expos, winning three of four over Montreal behind brilliant outings from Bibby, Blyleven and Rhoden.
But Pittsburgh then lost three in a row at eventual NL West champ Houston. The Pirates responded by winning three in a row over the contending Cincinnati Reds, an NL West team prior to the ’94 realignment. Pittsburgh was two games up in the NL East as the calendar neared Labor Day and they began a homestand with the lowly Atlanta Braves (also an NL West team according to the convoluted geography of the time) and the Reds.
The homestand, which led into the holiday, was an utter disaster. Seven straight losses. Neither the Phils or the Expos were hot either, so Pittsburgh maintained a half-game lead on both rivals. But with all of the Pirates’ losses being at home, this was a serious missed opportunity.
And it got worse. Pittsburgh paid a return visit to Atlanta and was swept again. The Pirates went to Philadelphia, hoping to reassert their mojo.
It was the city of Pittsburgh’s time in the sun. The Steelers had won the previous two Super Bowls and opened their season by beating the archrival Houston Oilers. Now the Pirates just had to take care of the Phils and the City of Champions could be back in business.
But the bullpen failed. Tuesday night’s opener was tied 2-2 in the eighth when Romo gave up four runs and lost 6-2. The Pirates led the Phils 4-2 in the eighth inning the next night. Tekulve gave up the lead and Pittsburgh lost 5-4 in extra innings.
The Pirates were 3 ½ back with the Phils and Expos running neck-and-neck. There was still time to turn the ship around, but the margin for error was slipping away. Pittsburgh went to Montreal for a weekend series. Pirate ownership of the Expos came to an end, with two losses in the three-game set, both by shutout. Pittsburgh was 4 ½ back.
On September 22 there were two weeks to go and a two-game set at home with Montreal had to represent the last stand. The Pirates won the opener 4-2, but Blyleven was hit the next night in a 7-1 loss.
Anyone who still harbored hope after this two-game set was quickly brought to reality when Pittsburgh lost six of their next eight. By the time the Phils and Expos began their epic weekend series to end the season, Pittsburgh was eight games out. The Pirates ended 83-79, and watched Philadelphia go on a dramatic ride through October to win the World Series.
The fade in September of 1980 was more than just an aberration. The Pirates slipped under. 500 in the strike year of 1981. They had winning seasons the two years following, but they were of the 84-78 variety and not ones that produced real pennant excitement. The bottom fell out for this franchise by the middle of the 1980s and they did not contend again until the division-winning year of 1990.