Jim Leyland came to Pittsburgh in 1986. Leyland inherited a team that had lost 104 games in 1985 and made very modest improvements in his first year. The second year went considerably better. The 1987 Pittsburgh Pirates made a run at .500 and sent the National League a message that they were doormats no longer.
Pittsburgh made a couple significant moves on the trade market prior to the 1987 baseball season. They dealt veteran starter Rick Rhoden and relief pitcher Cecilio Guante, two of the reliable pieces on their staff to the New York Yankees. In exchange they got a couple young starters back—Doug Drabek and Brian Fisher, each of whom contributed immediately.
Just before Opening Day, the Pirates moved another notable veteran. Catcher Tony Pena was shipped to St. Louis for three young players. Mike LaValliere came in return to replace Pena behind the plate. Mike Dunne would be another piece of the new-look starting rotation. And outfielder Andy Van Slyke would merely turn into one of the game’s better all-around players.
In short, while the Yankees and Cardinals both had better years in 1987 than Pittsburgh would, the Pirates had fleeced both and came out significantly better on the other side. Later in the season, the Pittsburgh kept getting younger, moving veteran second baseman Johnny Ray to the Angels and promoting Jose Lind from within.
By the time all was said and done, the Pirates were respectable. Drabek and Dunne combined to win 24 games in 1987 and each had an ERA in the 3s. Fisher’s ERA was higher, at 4.52, but he won eleven games. Rick Reuschel, the 38-year-old holdover, posted a 2.75 ERA. Jim Gott and Don Robinson were effective out of the bullpen. Bob Walk started, relieved and finished with a 3.31 ERA. And 22-year-old John Smiley, a lefty with a bright future ahead, started getting significant work.
The one thing that hurt the Pirate rotation was a lack of continuity. Nobody started at least thirty games and nobody worked as many as 200 innings. The result was a team ERA that ranked 8th in the 12-team National League. But there was hope.
The same went for the offense. Van Slyke put up a stat line of .359 on-base percentage/.507 slugging percentage. Bobby Bonilla played third and his stat line was .351/.481. LaValliere was a .300 hitter, as was shortstop Al Pedrique. Sid Bream at first base has a respectable OBP of .336.
Anyone else? Oh yes, the young leftfielder named Barry Bonds hit 25 home runs, slugged .490 and continued to grow into the all-around talent that would soon take the league by storm. Pittsburgh ended up seventh in the NL in runs scored.
Leyland’s second year didn’t immediately start out any better than his first. Pittsburgh occupied the NL East prior to the realignment of 1994 and went 6-10 in an opening stretch against divisional rivals from St. Louis, Chicago and New York. The Pirates lost five of seven on a trip out west.
But they picked up steam in May. When they hosted the NL West for a 12-game stretch, Pittsburgh went 9-3. They capped it off with a sweep of a pretty good Cincinnati Reds team on Memorial Day weekend. The Pirates were over .500 at the holiday, 21-19, and only five games back of the front-running Cardinals.
Making the playoffs was a tall order in these pre-realignment days, with only the two division winners advancing directly to the League Championship Series. So anyone in Pittsburgh who was harboring big dreams was brought back to reality in June.
The Pirates lost six straight out of the Memorial Day holiday, had a sub-.500 record for the month and capped it off by losing four straight to the mediocre Philadelphia Phillies. By the All-Star break, Pittsburgh was in territory that was all-too-familiar—last place, 17 ½ games out and with a record of 39-48.
A West Coast trip to start the second half had the potential to see things really spiral out of control, but the Pirates planted their feet and won six of eleven games on the trip. Then they gave it back, again getting swept by the Phils and losing three more in St. Louis. On August 23, they were 53-71.
We can mark this point as when the Leyland era would finally start to turn upward. Pittsburgh came home and won eight of nine. They came out of the Labor Day weekend and won six straight over the Cubs and Phillies.
A series of ten games against the Mets and Cardinals, both locked in a death struggle for the division title, might have sunk Pittsburgh all over again, the Pirates fought their way to a 5-5 mark in their battles with the heavyweights.
As if to punctuate their turnaround, they again swept the Phillies to close the season. The sweep gave Pittsburgh a final record of 80-82 and pulled them even with Philadelphia for fourth place. It was the best Pirate season since 1983.
Whenever a team gets on a run like this at the end of the year, there’s always question as to whether they only played well because the pressure was off. Pittsburgh answered those questions by coming out in 1988, winning 85 games and leaping up to second. After a brief step back in 1989, they resumed their upward trajectory in 1990, with the first of three straight NL East titles under Leyland.