Jim Leyland took over a Pittsburgh Pirates franchise that had collapsed in 1985 with a 57-win season. Over the next three years, Leyland led the Pirates on progressive improvement. They won 64 games in 1986. In 1987, the Buccos nearly got to .500 with 80 wins. 1988 saw Pittsburgh jump all the way to 88 victories and finish in second place. The 1989 Pittsburgh Pirates were poised to take that next step and win a division title…only it didn’t work out that way.
Pitching depth was the biggest problem. The Pirates had two good starters in Doug Drabek and John Smiley, who combined to win 26 games and each had a sub-3.00 ERA. They had an excellent closer in Bill Landrum who saved 26 games with an ERA of 1.67.
But there were problems after that. While Neal Heaton had a nice year with a 3.05 ERA and Randy Kramer was also at least competent (3.96 ERA), they had to shuttle between the rotation and the bullpen and there was no stability. If Heaton and Kramer weren’t in the pen, there was no help for Landrum. If they weren’t in the rotation, Drabek and Smiley carried a heavy load. There weren’t enough good arms for Leyland to put anything together and Pittsburgh finished 8th in the 12-team National League in staff ERA.
The offense was modestly better, but at sixth in the league, it wasn’t going to make up for the pitching problems. Bobby Bonilla continued to validate himself as an emerging star at third base with a stat line of .358 on-base percentage/.490 slugging percentage. Barry Bonds was also in the emerging phase of his career and while his power wasn’t what it would eventually become, Bonds did finish with a .351 OBP and steal 32 bases. Glenn Wilson was pretty good in right field, with a stat line of .332/.448.
But Andy Van Slyke, the third prong of what would become a potent offensive trifecta in the early 1990s with Bonds and Bonilla, did not have a good year in centerfield. An offseason trade of first baseman Randy Milligan didn’t pan out, as Milligan had a good year in Baltimore and the Pirates could have used a lefthanded bat at first base.
The platoon system also suffered, with only one-half of a couple platoons performing. The Pirates got a good year from Mike LaValliere behind the plate, but his .406 OBP came in just 68 games. Gary Redus played well as the right-handed hitting platoon at first base and the outfield, but his .372/.486 stat line only covered 98 games. There were no consistency issues in the shortstop platoon, but only because neither Jay Bell or Rey Quinones produced anything.
Pittsburgh was in the NL East prior to the realignment of 1994. The format of the time had each league split into an East and West with the winners moving directly to the League Championship Series. The Mets were the heavyweight of the NL East, fresh off a 100-win season in 1988. The Cardinals, who won this division in 1982, 1985 and 1987 were on the downswing. The Pirates, coming off their second-place finish, were the clear challenger to the Mets, with the Cubs, Phillies and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) lingering behind.
So it seemed anyway. A trip to Wrigley Field in the season’s opening week provided the first sign that perhaps 1989 would not go Pittsburgh’s way.
The Pirates led the Cubs 5-4 in the sixth inning of Friday afternoon’s opener before giving up a couple runs and losing 6-5. Wilson hit a two-run blast in Saturday’s late afternoon start, but that was one of just five Pittsburgh hits in a 5-3 loss. And Bob Walk, the #3 starter, gave the first indication that 1989 would not be his year when he was rocked for four runs in the first inning of the Sunday finale and lost 8-3.
It was just one series and it was certainly early. But with the advantage of history, we know that it would be the Cubs that emerged to challenge—and displace the Mets atop the NL East. And that the Pirates would never get started.
By the Memorial Day turn, Pittsburgh was 19-27, in fifth place and 7 ½ games back of Chicago, with New York in second. A visit to Shea Stadium in early June to face the Mets resulted in three straight losses. The Pirates were still in fifth place at the All-Star break and now eleven games back. By the time Labor Day arrived, the record was 59-76, the divisional deficit was 16 ½ and a city that preferred its football team in any event could turn their attention to the Steelers, who were about to embark on a surprise playoff run.
To the credit of the Pirates, they didn’t mail September in. They actually went 15-12 from Labor Day to the end of the season. That includes a two-week stretch that saw Pittsburgh win 10 of 13 and take series wins from Chicago and New York. But it was way too little and way too late for this season. The final record was 74-88.
An observer who concluded that the Pirates’ success of 1988 had been a fluke couldn’t be blamed. But it turned out that the slump of ’89 was the fluke. This season was just a detour on the way to the postseason. The good play of September foreshadowed a division title in 1990, and a three-year run atop the NL East.