This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a long and rich history. Dating back to Honus Wagner and the 1909 World Series Champions, the Pirates have been part of the some of the most memorable moments in baseball. Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees. The dazzling Roberto Clemente leading the Bucs to the 1971 World title. Willie Stargell and the 1979 Pirates winning the World Series with Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” pulsating in the background. Those were the good times.
When it comes to the 1985 version of the Pittsburgh Pirates, those memories are best forgotten. The Bucs finished the 85 season with a paltry 57-104 record, a whopping 43.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League East. It was the first time in 31 years the Pirates lost more than 100 games and it was also the worst record in Major League Baseball that season.
So where did it go wrong? Let’s start with the power. The Pirates were famous for having some of the most fearsome power hitters in baseball at one time. Stargell, Dave Parker and Bill Robinson used to strike fear in opposing pitchers when they stepped up to the plate. In 1985, pitchers were laughing when the Pirates were up to bat. Pittsburgh finished dead last in Major League Baseball with 80 home runs over the entire season. First baseman Jason Thompson led the team with only 12 big flies. Only three years earlier, Thompson swatted 31 homers for the Pirates. Thompson lost power faster than a Central American dictator during a military coup. Third baseman Bill Madlock and catcher Tony Pena did manage 10 home runs each, but they were the only other Pirates, to reach double figures in homers.
The Pirates did try to make changes to their roster, but it had dubious results. Outfielder Steve Kemp was acquired in a trade with the New York Yankees for shortstop Dale Berra, and minor league outfielder Jay Buhner, who went on to have a solid career with the Seattle Mariners. Kemp on the other hand, was a complete bust for the Pirates, batting .250 with 2 home runs and 18 RBIs in 92 games. Kemp was mercifully released early in 1986.
The man tagged to replace Berra at shortstop wasn’t any better. Sammy Khalifa came to Pittsburgh with high expectations but was pretty useless as a ball player. Offensively, Khalifa compiled a .238 average with 2 homers and 31 RBIs in 95 games. Defensively, Khalifa didn’t remind anyone of Ozzie Smith as his 16 errors would demonstrate. By 1987, Khalifa was out of baseball, and Pirate fans are thankful for that.
Another offseason transaction that went awry, was the acquisition of outfielder George Hendrick, who was obtained from St. Louis for pitcher John Tudor and catcher Brian Harper. While Tudor and Harper helped the Cardinals win the pennant in 1985, Hendrick was a major disappointment for the Pirates. Hendrick batted a measly .230 with only 2 home runs and 25 RBIs in 69 games. Hendrick was dealt to the California Angels midway through the season, as he became just another skeleton, in the Pirates closet.
It was so bad for the Pirates, outfielder Marvell Wynne couldn’t even spell win properly. The Pirates center fielder batted a putrid .205 with 2 homers and 18 RBIs in 103 games. In other words, the Pirates didn’t win with Wynne.
Speaking of the pitching, that wasn’t much better than the hitting for the Pirates. In fact, no one had it worse than Jose DeLeon. The hard throwing right-hander from the Dominican Republic had a horrible season in 1985, as he led all pitchers in baseball with 19 losses! DeLeon’s final tally for the season was 2-19 with a 4.70 ERA. DeLeon did lead the Pirates with 149 strikeouts, but was banished to the bullpen midway through the season. DeLeon did pick up 3 saves, but his career never recovered, as he bounced around between 5 teams in 10 years.
The one starting pitcher that did have a good season was Rick Reuschel. The hefty right-hander was one of the very few Pirates that enjoyed success in 1985, posting a 14-8 record with a sparking 2.27 ERA. There was no doubt that Reuschel was the team MVP of the 85 season and perhaps the only Pirate deserving of praise.
The rest of the starting rotation was mediocre at best. Rick Rhoden did reach double figures in wins (10) but also reached double figures in losses. (14) Rhoden is now a professional golfer and he’s had success on the links, even qualifying for the US Senior Open. Maybe he should have left baseball earlier, and stuck with golf throughout his athletic career.
Lee Tunnell went 4-10 with a 4.01 ERA in 85. When he pitched, the light of the end of the tunnel for the Pirates was another train ready to run them over.
Left-hander Larry McWilliams had arm troubles, and it showed with his 7-9 record with a 4.70 ERA and only 52 strikeouts. Just two years earlier, McWilliams was a Cy Young candidate as he had 14 wins and 199 strikeouts. Bad luck hindered McWilliams and the Pirates in 1985.
The bullpen was a mess from the get-go. In spring training, Pirates manager Chuck Tanner decided to move John Candelaria to the bullpen from the rotation, to become the closer for the Pirates. With Kent Tekulve on his last days of his career, Tanner thought the Candy Man could become the successor in the closer’s role. It didn’t work. Candelaria did lead the Pirates in saves, but only accumulated 9 saves while finishing the season with a 2-4 mark with a 3.64 ERA. Candelaria with Hendrick to the Angels in exchange for another closer, fiery left-hander Al Holland. The former Phillies closer managed 4 saves in 38 appearances for the Bucs.
The fans mostly stayed away from Three Rivers Stadium in 1985. The Pirates didn’t come even close to drawing 1 million spectators as they ranked last in attendance, averaging a scant 9,085 paying customers. Only movie theatres showing Red Sonja had more empty seats than Three Rivers Stadium in 1985.
Changes were coming after the awfulness of 1985. Longtime manager Chuck Tanner was fired at the end of the season. Jason Thompson went to Montreal to finish his career with the Expos. Bill Madlock was traded to Los Angeles. Jose DeLeon went to the Chicago White Sox. Young stars such as Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla were given shots with the big club. The moves began to pay off as the Pirates went from cellar dwellers, to division winners in five years, as the Pirates enjoyed a run of success in the early 1990s. However, the Pirates couldn’t afford to keep their star players and they suffered the consequences of the economics of baseball. The Pirates have gone through 20 straight losing seasons, the longest streak in professional sports. They are looking to change that in 2013, and are in good position to do so.
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