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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

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Piniella, the Pirates and Peaking

Whenever I think about Sweet Lou Piniella, who managed his last game Sunday, I remember reading a piece a few years back about the fact that Piniella would often wake up in the middle of the night worrying about what went wrong on the field and how to avoid the misfortune from happening again. Unfortunately, I know the feeling. I’m a post-midnight, middle-of-the-night worrier, too.

But, I digress. In one of these 4:00 a.m. moments, as recounted in the story, Piniella, always worried about his pitching staff, hit upon the notion of going with a four-man rather than a five-man rotation. His next comment was priceless.

”Now at four in the morning it seemed to work for me,” Piniella said. “Whether it works at 7 o’clock at night or 1:30 in the afternoon, I’m not sure.” Exactly. What seems like gold at 4:00 a.m. often looks like something a lot less valuable in the cold light of day.

In any event, we may never know if another of Lou’s middle-of-the-night brainstorms is a keeper, since he vows he is done with the dugout and, finally, really going to hang it up. It has been quite a ride for the one-time Yankee outfielder and American and National League manager of World Series winners and also rans. By all accounts, Piniella is a nice guy with a Hall of Fame temper on the diamond. I’ll miss seeing him pull a base out of the infield and try to turn it into a Frisbee.

The Pirates

The hapless Pittsburgh Pirates – you know you’ve become hopeless when the that word hapless is the only adjective that seems to work in front of your name. The hapless Bucs have – here we are in late August – ensured that they will endure their 18th consecutive losing season. Since 1992, there has never been a point in any season when the once-stories Pittsburgh franchise was more than seven games over .500. This year, the Pirates ensured a losing season faster than ever. Some record that.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a great photo a fan holding a sign reading, “I’m a Cubs fan, I came to Pittsburgh to feel better.” Ouch.

If all that losing wasn’t bad enough, the Associated Press obtained club documents that show while Pittsburgh fans were agonizing over all those sub-.500 years, the guys in the front office were some how able to make just north of $29 million bucks the last two seasons. Who says losing doesn’t pay? Obviously, the Pirate owners weren’t spending any of their money on baseball players. It wasn’t always so.

Back when Joe L. Brown run the front office the Pirates won two World Series titles and five Division titles. Brown, who died last week at 91, was one of the best baseball people most folks never heard of. Brown was the Pirates GM from the 1950’s to the 1970’s.

As the New York Times noted in its obit: “In building the 1960 champions, Mr. Brown blended (Roberto) Clemente, (Bill) Mazeroski, Dick Groat and pitchers Bob Friend, Vern Law and Roy Face with players he obtained in trades: center fielder Bill Virdon, third baseman Don Hoak, catchers Smoky Burgess and Hal Smith, and pitchers Harvey Haddix and Vinegar Bend Mizell.”

in 1971, under Brown, the Pirates fielded the first all-black starting nine in a game with the Phillies.

And…more on “the” home run A few loyal readers pointed out that I failed to address, in my weekend post on Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world,” the controversy over whether Thomson knew what was coming that October afternoon at the Polo Grounds when he hit his famous home run off of Ralph Branca.

Joshua Prager’s book The Echoing Green makes a strong case that the Giants had spent all of the 1951 season at the Polo Grounds stealing the signs of opposing pitchers by use of a Rube Goldberg-like, but still ingenious, system of telescopes and buzzers. In Prager’s account, Giants’ hitters could get tipped off to what was coming. Until his dying day, Thomson denied any advance knowledge that Branca was going to serve up the fastball that would be immortalized on film, in novels and in Russ Hodges’ famous “the Giants win the pennant” radio call.

It is a great story, and the “truth” will never be known with any certainty but, you know what, I don’t think it matters? And, here’s why.

It has been said, and I think it is true, that hitting a baseball being throw at you from 60 feet away at near 100 miles per hour is the single hardest thing to do in all of sports.

My dad – a baseball fan and not a golfer – used to ask, when watching the U.S. Open or the Masters on television, why the crowd had to be perfectly quiet when a golfer is preparing to hit a stationary ball sitting on the ground, while a major league hitter is expected to concentrate in front of a screaming crowd of 50,000 fans, and hit a leather rock being throw at frightening speed that could be aimed at his head or his feet or anywhere in between? Good question.

Bobby Thomson may well have known a Ralph Branca fastball was on the way. He still had to hit it and under the most intense kind of pressure. He didn’t pop it up to the shortstop, he hit it into the left field stands. End of story.

As the great novelist Don DeLillo wrote in the prologue to his book Underworld, which is set at the Polo Grounds on the afternoon of Thomson’s homer when the Giants beat the Dodgers:

“…fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren – they’ll be the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.”

I wasn’t there when it happened, or even born, but that doesn’t matter, either. It did happen – the most perfect home run ever – thanks to the late Bobby Thomson.

Did I mention that he was a Giant? His homer beat the Dodgers, too. What a story.

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