Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The 1983 Pittsburgh Pirates: A Team that May Have been Even More Schizophrenic than the 2012 Edition

There is no doubt that the post-100 games portion of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2012 season has been a huge disappointment. After going on a 40-20 run to achieve a 60-44 mark and a four-game lead in the National League wild card standings, the Pirates have since gone 14-29 and are only still in "contention" for a wild card spot because MLB decided to add a second spot, and because the teams that they are battling are also kind of mediocre.

As high as the highs were in June and July, that's how low the lows have been in August and September. One might say it's a tale of two teams, and one would be right. Nobody seems to be able to put a finger on the 2012 squad, and perhaps even more frightening, regardless of how the reminder of the schedule plays out, nobody knows quite what to expect in 2013.

However, as schizophrenic as the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates have been, they may not even come close to the emotional ebbs and flows that fans of the 1983 Pirates must have been feeling.

I've followed the Pirates quite closely since 1984, and in that entire time, I've witnessed four, count'em, four winning seasons (hopefully, it'll be five after this season, but I'm not holding my breath). The 1983 Pirates have always fascinated me a bit because, even though Willie Stargell had retired by that point, guys like Dave Parker were still around, as were other '79 World Series heroes, such as Bill Madlock and Kent Tekulve. Even though the roster wasn't quite the same as those late-70s squads, I'm sure the standards were still pretty high for the Pirates at that time. The '83 edition finished in second place in the NL East with an 84-78 record. But like this year's team, they were kind of contenders but not really, and how they got to that 84-78 mark was quite the roller coaster ride of ups and downs all throughout the year. Pedro Alvarez would have loved playing for the '83 Pirates because even though the end result was a pretty decent record, consistency wasn't their trademark.

Below is a recap:

I wasn't following baseball then, so why the Pirates opened up the season with a one game "series" in St. Louis to face the World Champion Cardinals is beyond me. However, they won that game, 7-1, and then went to Houston and swept the Astros in a four-game series. 5-0 is a start to the season that any fan would take, and even though I realize that the Pirates weren't exactly the number one team in town in the early 80's, the Bucco faithful had to be pretty excited. How did the team reward this excitement? By losing 14 of their next 18 games to fall to fourth place in the National League East, and 5.5 games out of first place.

After starting out 9-14, things sort of settled down a bit, as the Pirates went 9-9 over the next 18 games and were 18-23. They were still in fourth place, and 6.5 games out of first. Pittsburgh then lost six games in a row, and then seven out of 12 to fall to a pretty crappy 23-36 and were now in fifth place, 8.5 games out of first.

Were there calls for Chuck Tanner, still manager at that time, to be fired? Who knows, but if there were, the team answered the bell by going on a nine-game winning streak, including a four-game sweep in St. Louis. At 32-36, the Pirates were back in fourth place and had made up three games in the standings. Not bad.

The Pirates then lost four-games in a row, including a three-game sweep to the Cubs at Wrigley Field, and had slipped to eight games under .500 at 32-40. After going 4-3 over a seven game stretch, the Pirates went on an eight-game winning splurge, including a three-game sweep in San Francisco and a four-game sweep in San Diego--if only the 2012 Pirates could have played the '83 Padres.

The Pirates were now 44-43, in second place in the division and only one game out of first place. I'll bet pennant fever had gripped the city of Pittsburgh by that point. If there was a fever, the Pirates kept things warm by winning 10 of their next 14 games to move to 54-47 and 1.5 games up in the NL East standings.

Unfortunately, the fever subsided, as the Pirates lost seven out of nine games, including a three-game sweep at Three Rivers by the Montreal Expos, to fall to 56-54 and had slipped to third place in the standings.

Fear not, fans of the '83 Pirates, because after losing two of three in Philadelphia to the eventual NL Champion Phillies, the Pirates went on a five game winning-streak, including a sweep of the Expos in Montreal, and were in second place with a 62-55 record. The Pirates were only one game back in the standings, and things were only going to get better from there, right?

Wrong! The Pirates proceeded to lose six of seven games at home to fall to 63-61. However, you 2012 Pirates fans will appreciate this: The Pirates managed to actually gain a .5 game in the standings because the first place Phillies were even more awful during that stretch.

Pittsburgh then won five of their next six games to improve to 68-62. More importantly, they had moved into first place and had a two-game lead. It was time to leave the rest of the field in the dust!

Not so fast. The Pirates then lost eight of their next 12 games, including two of three at home to the Phillies, to drop to fourth place at 72-70. That record looks a little familiar, doesn't it, 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates?

All hope was lost, right? Wrong again! The Pirates won their next six games to improve to 78-70 and found themselves in a tie for first place with those Phillies. It sure was going to be an exciting finish, right?

I think you know where this is going. The Pirates went 6-8 down the stretch, and that may have been all right if the Phillies had stuck to their '83 script of being sort of mediocre up to that point. Instead of that, however, the Phillies finished out the year by winning 13 of their last 15 games and won the NL East by six games over Pittsburgh.

So there you have it. I don't know what was going through the minds of Pirates fans during the team's '83 campaign, but it may have been even more frustrating than what this year's team has done to our collective psyche.

As most fans probably know, the Pirates '83 run was the end of a great era of winning baseball, and the team soon sank to lows it hadn't seen in decades; lows that threatened the very existence of the franchise in Pittsburgh.

One might say that the schizophrenic nature of the 1983 Pirates was that of a veteran team on its last leg. Let's hope the schizophrenic nature of the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates is that of a young team that just needs stronger legs to stand on.

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