A couple of weeks ago, my boss, the imitable Rodney Sherman proffered a column idea; name my favorite Pirates players position by position. I figured, why not?
The only rule I have is the players have to have played in the time period I have been watching baseball so you won’t see Clemente, Wagner, Kiner, the Waner brothers, Traynor, etc. on this list.
The 1979 Pirates team is my earliest recollection of baseball so the team will consist of players who played with Pittsburgh between 1979 and the present day.
Catcher: Mike LaValliere and Don Slaught
During the early 1990s, LaValliere and Slaught platooned at catcher with LaValliere, a left-handed batter, playing on days the Pirates were facing a right-handed starting pitcher while Slaught was behind the dish when the opponent trotted out a lefty starter. I just couldn’t decide between the two so I chose to include both because both men were important to those early 1990s Pirate teams that won three-straight division titles.
LaValliere just looked like a catcher. He was squat and pudgy but he could hit.
Slaught could hit too and he bore a striking resemblance to the Pirate on the team’s logo at the time.
First base: Willie Stargell
Willie was my favorite ballplayer when I first started watching baseball.
Granted, I only got to enjoy watching Willie at the tail end of his Hall of Fame career so I didn’t get to see the best version of Willie but that didn’t matter. I started playing Little League baseball the year after Willie retired and I remember darn near everyone who played on the Perry Township Little League team wore their cap under their batting helmet because Willie did (that and the batting helmets we had were pretty old and a little disgusting).
Second base: Jose Lind
Jose Lind’s inclusion on this list is tough for me. On one hand, he was one of the best defensive second basemen the Pirates have ever had. On the other hand, he had the one of the most costly errors in Pirates history when he muffed David Justice’s ground ball in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series (I won’t even go into detail on his cocaine-fueled pants-less traffic stop after his retirement from baseball).
Shortstop: Tim Foli
Foli was a dogged competitor who was just a pain in the behind for Pirates opponents. He was also a tremendous No. 2 hitter on the 1979 World Series team. If Foli would have played for the Reds or Phillies, I would have hated his guts.
Third base: Bill Madlock
Pittsburgh traded for Madlock in May of the 1979 season and his addition to the starting lineup really shored up the Pirates’ infield. Madlock playing third meant Phil Garner could move to his more natural second base position.
Madlock was a heck of a hitter winning four batting titles in his career (two while he with the Pirates). I remember my parents taking me and my grandma to a Pirates game when I was really young. We had seats on the first base line at Three Rivers Stadium and we were watching the players’ warmup before the game. I remember I waved at Madlock who was playing catch with Mike Easler and Madlock waved back at me.
I’ll always remember that day because Madlock waved at me (and because our entire family got like seventh-degree sunburns).
Centerfield: Andy Van Slyke
Center field was the toughest position for me to choose. Choosing Andy Van Slyke over Andrew McCutchen was a hard decision. I went with Van Slyke because he was the guy when I was young and dumb. I’m sure if I was in my teens when Andrew McCutchen was in his heyday, I would have gone with Cutch. I’m trying to wash my mind clear of those vitamin supplement commercials Van Slyke has done recently with Frank Thomas and Doug Flutie.
Left field: Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds was moody.
Barry Bonds was not always fan-friendly. Barry Bonds was a lot of things including one of the best baseball players of my lifetime. For years, I have been against Bonds being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame because of his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs during the later years of his career. But I have softened my stance in the past couple years. What is keeping Bonds or Roger Clemens or anyone else on the suspected PED users list out of the Hall of Fame really accomplishing?
Right field: Dave Parker
Parker was brash and that rubbed a lot of Pirates fans the wrong way which is why Parker may have been the most underappreciated star Pittsburgh ever had. He was one of the best hitters in the Pirate lineup for around five or six years and he had a cannon for an arm that many a player was unwise to challenge. Things turned bad for Parker relatively quickly in the Steel City when a group of reprehensible Pirates’ fans started whizzing D batteries at Parker when Parker was playing the field at Three Rivers. I can’t blame Parker for wanting to get out of town when his contract expired after the 1983 season.
Starting pitcher: Zane Smith
This choice probably has you scratching your head but hear me out. Smith might have been one of the most underrated pitchers in Pirates’ history. He was quiet and unassuming but when his turn on the mound came, you could count on Smith to get the job done more often than not.
Pittsburgh traded for Smith in the stretch run of the 1990 season. Smith went 6-4 in 1990 for the Pirates including a 1-0 shutout of the Mets in the first game of a crucial doubleheader which helped Pittsburgh clinch its first division title in 11 years. On an unrelated note; Smith was almost a dead ringer for the other brother Daryl from the “Newhart” sitcom.
Relief pitcher: Kent Tekulve
Tekulve was one of the best relievers in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Tekulve perfected his sidearm delivery, flummoxing batters.
Tekulve’s genius with the sidearm pitching mechanics paid dividends across the league. Tekulve helped Royals’ reliever Dan Quisenberry perfect his submarine pitching delivery and Quisenberry became one of the best relievers in the American League.
Tekulve and Quisenberry pitched at a time when relievers were expected to close games over multiple innings instead of just trying to get the last three outs of the ninth inning.
Well, as Janis Joplin said, “That’s it.”