1984 marked the end of a long run of baseball success in Pittsburgh, as the Pirates had their first losing season in a full 162-game schedule since 1968. The 1985 Pittsburgh Pirates slammed the door on anyone who doubted that an era was over–the franchise suffered its worst season in over thirty years on the field and went through a lot of humiliation off of it.
Pittsburgh had some everyday players with good names. But Jason Thompson at first base continued the decline that would prematurely end his career. Third baseman Bill Madlock had his second straight bad season and the career of “Mad Dog” would not revive until he left the Steel City. Tony Pena was a good catcher with a bright future ahead of him, but 1985 was a woeful one for him.
The Pirates had hoped to strengthen their offense with the traded reliable lefthanded starting pitcher John Tudor to St. Louis in exchange for rightfielder George Hendrick. But Hendrick, a big part of the Cardinals’ championship team in 1982, proved to be at the end of the line himself. The trade got even worse when Tudor had a spectacular year and helped St. Louis win the National League pennant.
Steve Kemp played left field and had some good seasons over the course of his major league career. 1985 wasn’t one of them. Shortstop was a revolving door and no one ever produced. Centerfielder Marvell Wynne had an awful year at the plate.
Was there any good news? Well, even though second baseman Johnny Ray didn’t have a good year, he still hit 33 doubles and the Pirates were second in the National League in two-baggers. Joe Orsulak, a 23-year-old rightfielder, came off the bench and got some playing time, batting .300. But all Ray and Orsulak could do was ensure that this offense wasn’t the worse in the NL–the Pirates settled for finishing 11th in the 12-team National League in runs scored.
When the Pirates traded Tudor, they seemed to be doing so from a position of strength. The staff had actually been the National League’s best in 1984, even as the team struggled. And they signed Rick Reuschel in the offseason. But even as Reuschel pitched well, winning 14 games and posting a 2.27 ERA, everyone else struggled.
Rick Rhoden was generally respectable over the course of his career, but his ERA jumped to 4.47 in 1985. Larry McWilliams saw his ERA soar to 4.70. So did poor Jose DeLeon, who might not have pitched well in ‘85, but certainly didn’t deserve the 2-19 record he ended up with.
John Candelara, the veteran lefty and remaining piece from the 1979 World Series championship, moved to the bullpen and was respectable. He finished with a 3.64 ERA. But reflecting both a different era in how closers were used and how bad the ‘85 Pirates were, the Candy Man only saved nine games. Cecilo Guante had a good year in relief, with a 2.72 ERA and Don Robinson was adequate. But again, these were bandages on a wound.
The Pirates opened the season with 17 games against the Cubs, Mets and Cardinals. In the divisional alignments prior to 1994, all–including Pittsburgh–were NL East teams, along with the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) and the Phillies.
Chicago had won the NL East in 1984. New York and St. Louis would be the two teams that staged a thrilling pennant race this season. Pittsburgh was overmatched and lost 12 of 17, averaging less than three runs per game offensively in the process.
By Memorial Day, the Pirates were 14-26, in last place and eleven games out of first place. In early June, they dropped six straight to the Cubs and Reds. In the latter part of June, they went to Philadelphia for a weekend series that seemed to sum up the season.
The Phillies weren’t having a good year in 1985 either. Reuschel pitched well in the Friday night opener and left the bullpen a 3-1 lead. The pen allowed the Phils to tie the game in the ninth and then lost it in the 16th inning when Philadelphia outfielder Juan Samuel hit a walkoff double.
On Saturday, the game was tied 2-2 in the ninth with McWilliams pitching well. The bullpen took over. Samuel hit a three-run jack and the Pirates lost. DeLeon came out on Sunday and he pitched well. Another game was tied 2-2 in the ninth and again the bullpen took over. This time Samuel got hit by a pitch, went to second on a balk and then scored the winning run on a throwing error. If nothing else, the Pirates made Juan Samuel’s season.
By the time Labor Day rolled around, Pittsburgh was 40-87, in a division where everyone else was at least within five games of .500. Suffice it to say, the city was more than ready for the return of the Steelers, who were fresh off a run to the AFC Championship Game.
The Pirates actually played pretty good baseball in the final month, going 17-14. They were the X-factor in the division race. WIth the Cards and Mets in a titanic struggle, Pittsburgh split six games with the Mets, while losing all five they played against the Cardinals. It was the difference in the NL East.
But by late summer and into fall, not only was it way too late on the field, the off-the-field drama was taking center stage. The infamous “Pittsburgh drug trials” were taking place. A number of major league players were being called to testify regarding their relationships with local drug dealers being prosecuted.
Pirate players, both past and present, took the stand. Most notable was Dave Parker, who won the MVP award here in 1978 and was now in Cincinnati. John Milner, a good lefthanded hitter in the earlier part of the decade was summoned by the court. So was Dale Berra, the shortstop here as recently as a year earlier with a famous bloodline–his father was the legendary Yankee catcher Yogi Berra. Rod Scurry, a lefthander on the current Pirate team also testified.
The entire affair was a humiliating exercise for baseball as a whole and the Pirates in particular. Chuck Tanner, who had managed the team since 1977, was unlikely to survive the 104-loss season in any case. But the revelation that Tanner had been unable to control his clubhouse certainly sealed his fate. Tanner was replaced by Jim Leyland and the franchise began a rebuild. And by 1990, they were back atop the NL East.