If the 1979 World Series belonged to Willie Stargell, and there is not a soul on Earth who watched the man they affectionately called “Pops” will the championship to the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates in those seven games against the Baltimore Orioles who doesn't think otherwise, then the season belonged to manager Chuck Tanner.
This was a team that not everyone could manage, for it was a flamboyant, rollicking group of free spirits that had somehow come together under one roof, tied together only by a burning desire to win. It was a cast of characters made for a TV situation comedy, sort of a “Gilligan’s Island” meets “Friends” sequel from a second baseman nicknamed Scrap Iron to a third baseman nicknamed Mad Dog. There was the Candy Man or the Rubber Band Man on the mound and in right field they had in Dave Parker, “The Cobra”, a man whose ego was the only thing that towered over his ability.
It was, to be honest, a team only Chuck Tanner could love.
You have to understand that Tanner never was what you’d call a member of the baseball establishment, right from the moment he was born on the Fourth of July in 1929 through the day he hit a home run in his first major league at bat. You look at his player page on baseball-reference.com and you find out that he couldn’t even get to the Pirates in the traditional manner, being traded while managing Oakland on November 5, 1976, by Athletics owner Charlie Finley, along with 100 grand, for catcher Manny Sanguillen.
Tanner already had the reputation of being somewhat unique in his managerial style, charming the irrepressible—and sometimes irresponsible—Dick Allen into producing an MVP season with the Chicago White Sox in 1972, while at the same time getting four consecutive 20-win seasons out of knuckleballer Wilbur Wood by turning him from a tireless reliever into a tireless starter who made as many as 49 starts in five straight years of 40 starts or more.
But it was with the Pirates in 1979 that it all came together, for this was a clubhouse full of Dick Allens, a club that had more personality than talent. Not that they were talentless, obviously, but they won a world championship with a team that had neither a 15-game winner nor a 100-RBI man. No one else had ever done that.
“How did I keep everybody happy?” Tanner always says. “I’d tell them, 'We’re going to win the pennant, and if you don’t want that, get the hell out of here.'"
He knew in Stargell he had the perfect leader, a man who somehow understood what was needed during the toughest of times, and turned the clubhouse over to him.
"Any time things were going bad, Stargell would say, 'We need to have a team party,'" catcher Steve Nicosia, a rookie that year, once recalled. "We'd rent a suite on the road on a day off and have a big pool party, just have some alcohol and have a good time. Most managers might put a squelch on that, have their coaches try to make it not happen. Chuck would come down and have a beer, then leave us alone.”
"I had one eye and one ear," Tanner once explained. “If it wasn't important, I didn't care. That way, they'd all be relaxed."
Tanner was unorthodox off the field and just as unorthodox on it. The Pirates won the National League East by two games over Montreal in 1979. When people look back upon that regular season there are two games which Tanner managed by gut feeling rather than by anything that would ever pass for baseball sense by a more conventional manager.
One game was against the Philadelphia Phillies on August 5, bottom of the ninth inning, one out, the scored tied 8-8, at Three Rivers Stadium. The bases were loaded, left-hander Tug McGraw on the mound and the right-handed hitting Nicosia due up.
Let us first note that Nicosia was 4-for-4 on the day, but Tanner decided to pinch hit for him. With John Milner. A left-handed hitter.
It was as unorthodox a move as could be made, but as evidence of the respect Tanner had on the club, Nicosia not only didn’t complain, the career .248 hitter told a teammate on the bench, “What are the chances of a guy like me going 5-for-5?" There were boos, fans stunned by the move, but Tanner had his reasons, wanting to equalize McGraw’s best pitch, the screwball. He knew Milner was a fastball hitter, who got one on the first pitch and hit it for a grand slam.
Now we go to the second game on September 1 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco with the Pirates leading 5-3 with two outs in the ninth inning and Darrell Evans batting for the Giants. Out of the dugout bounces Tanner to bring in left-hander Grant Jackson to face Evans, just as he had done a night earlier as Jackson saved the game.
On this day, though, Tanner didn't take closer Kent Tekulve out of the game when he called in Jackson from the bullpen. Instead, Tanner sent Tekulve to left field, making him the most unlikely suspect you could ever imagine to place in the outfield. Tanner's thinking was that if Jackson did not retire Evans, he could bring Tekulve back in to face right-handed hitting Mike Ivie. The previous night, another left-hander, Terry Whitfield, followed Evans so Tanner didn’t consider leaving Tekulve in the game.
Here’s Tekulve’s account of what went on as Jackson came to the mound.
Tanner: How you going to pitch Evans?
Jackson: I’m going to work him inside.
Tanner: No, Evans is a pull hitter, work him away.
Jackson: I can’t pitch him inside, Teke’s in left field.
Tanner: I don’t care. Evans is a pull hitter and a dangerous one, so I want you to pitch him away.
Tekulve wasn’t on the mound as that conversation took place, but he says that’s the way it was told to him. He, instead, was in left field. While Tanner and Jackson were talking, Omar Moreno came over from center field to give Tekulve a crash course in playing the outfield.
"I’m saying 'yeah, yeah,' but I don’t understand a word he’s saying. He’s talking in Spanish,” Tekulve said.
Sure enough, Jackson pitches away, Evans hits a soft fly to left.
“It’s a can of corn,” Tekulve said. “There isn’t anyone within 150 feet of me but I’m waving everybody off as if anyone else is going to catch it. I caught it and I’ve always accursed Evans of hitting the ball to me on purpose.”
Everyone rushed out to congratulate Tekulve, not Jackson, while Tanner just wore a big, wide smile.
“We won the pennant by one game and I tell people that fly ball was the most important play of the season,” Tekulve said.
Actually, two games, but who’s counting?
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