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Pennant race flashback: September 2, 1997

Shawon Dunston's bat charmed a big crowd at Three Rivers Stadium in his first game with the Pirates.
Shawon Dunston's bat charmed a big crowd at Three Rivers Stadium in his first game with the Pirates.

BACKGROUND: At season's outset, the 1997 Pirates hardly expected that their stretch-drive destiny included shopping for a veteran shortstop. The offseason signing of Kevin Elster, fresh off a career year in Texas, had seemed to stabilize the position.

At season's outset, the '97 Bucs hardly expected that their stretch-drive destiny included first-hand participation in a pennant race, either. With a roster downsized to a $9 million payroll and longtime manager Jim Leyland departed, even the previous season's 73-89 finish seemed a relatively ambitious objective.

But the team that Greg Brown would dub the "Freak Show" somehow managed to hang around .500 through the first five months of the season. The rest of the NL Central—labeled "Comedy Central" by certain unsympathetic observers—cooperated by faring little better. Improbably, the Pirates woke up on the morning of August 31 with a 68-68 record and a manageable 2.5-game lag on the first-place Astros.

They also woke up that morning—coincidentally, the day of the deadline to set postseason rosters—desperately seeking veteran fortification at shortstop. A season-ending broken wrist in mid-May had rendered Elster an early casualty. Unheralded Kevin Polcovich, a 27-year-old rookie and former 30th-round draft pick, promptly stepped in and performed admirably for three and a half months before succumbing to a season-ending ankle injury of his own in an August 29 loss in Milwaukee.

With limited internal options for the next leg of the shortstop relay—prospects Abraham Nunez and Lou Collier lacked seasoning and veteran Dale Sveum stood at least half a decade removed from the bulk of his major-league experience at shortstop—Bucco general manager Cam Bonifay turned to the trading market.

Bonifay first attempted to swing a deal for Jay Bell, traded from the Pirates to Kansas City over the previous winter, but the Royals wanted too much prospect value in return. Minutes before the deadline, however, Bonifay found his man, acquiring Shawon Dunston from the Cubs for future considerations.

Dunston did not reach Pittsburgh in time for a Labor Day afternoon loss to the Indians at Three Rivers Stadium. His debut would have to wait for the second game of the Cleveland series; the Bucs still trailed Houston by only 2.5 games, even after two losses in a row.

ACTION: Dunston’s first game with the Pirates seemed to validate Bonifay’s eye for talent. His two home runs led the Bucs to a 6-4 victory over the AL Central-leading Indians.

With the Pirates trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the second, Dunston celebrated his initial plate appearance in black and gold by driving rookie Jaret Wright’s 1-0 pitch into the seats in left center to tie the game. Four innings later, the 34-year-old Dunston overturned a 3-2 Cleveland lead and put the Pirates ahead to stay with a three-run blast off Wright. The crowd of 43,380 responded with a standing ovation; Dunston emerged from the dugout for a brief curtain call.

Pirates’ rookie starter Jose Silva, who had allowed four first-inning runs in each of his two previous starts, flirted with disaster by loading the bases with none out in the first. But an unconventional 7-2 double play, with catcher Keith Osik tagging Omar Vizquel near the Indians’ dugout after the Cleveland shortstop missed home plate on a would-be sacrifice fly, short-circuited the rally.

Silva subsequently limited the Indians to three runs in six and a third innings before turning the lead over to Chris Peters, Marc Wilkins and Rich Loiselle to close out the win.

Coupled with first-place Houston’s interleague loss to the Brewers, the Pirates closed to a game and a half of the division lead.

OBSERVATIONS: Dunston was trying to lace on a pair of blue spikes, footwear that clashed badly with the Pirates' black batting practice jerseys. The shoes were leftovers from Chicago, where Dunston had spent 12 of his 13 major-league seasons with the Cubs before being traded to the Pirates Sunday. The spikes weren't the only indication Dunston didn't seem ready to join the Pirates. His words made it clear he is less than thrilled about being traded.

- John Perrotto, Beaver County Times

Cam Bonifay delivered a clear message to his team when Shawon Dunston took up residence at shortstop last night. Sure, he preached over and over during the first five months of the season that this year was all about seeing if the newcomers brought in for a fresh start could prove themselves at the major-league level and if his young pitchers and hitters could establish themselves while players for the future were being groomed for the minors. But the Central Division title is still there for the taking, thanks in large part to Houston's generosity. So the thinking of the Pirates' brass has changed.

- Robert Dvorchak and Paul Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

POSTSCRIPT: Dunston hit safely in 17 of 18 games with the Pirates that September, racking up an impressive triple-slash line of .394/.389/.690 in 74 plate appearances. (On-base percentage lower than his batting average? Yes, thanks to no walks and one sacrifice fly.) The Bucs, however, dropped six of their next seven games to fall 3.5 games behind Houston; they would not get any closer to the eventual NL Central champions.