BACKGROUND: No single-bullet theory could fully account for the second-place 1988 Pirates' ultimate fifteen-game shortfall to the NL East champion Mets. All post-season autopsies, however, would note a key contributing factor: the Bucs' dismal shortstop play. The trio of Rafael Belliard (best remembered for going more than ten years between his first and second major league home runs), Al Pedrique (best remembered for the "All-Star Rookie" designation on his 1988 Topps baseball card), and Felix Fermin (best remembered for being traded twice for fellow shortstops destined to have superior careers) started 159 of 160 games and registered poorly under metrics both known in the summer of '88 (including a few innings contributed by Denny Gonzalez and Ken Oberkfell, Bucco shortstops managed an aggregate .216 batting average with no home runs and 18 RBI) and unknown at that time (0.4 combined Wins Above Replacement for Belliard, Pedrique, and Fermin).
Entrusted with the General Manager position after Syd Thrift's controversial firing the week after the season ended, Larry Doughty went to the Winter Meetings in search of a shortstop upgrade. Prominent December rumors indicated Bucco interest in two young Atlanta shortstops, Andres Thomas and Jeff Blauser, but trade talks fizzled when the Braves asked for Barry Bonds in a one-for-one deal. Another rumored deal had Belliard or Fermin and Jim Gott or Jeff Robinson from the Pirates' bullpen going to the Cubs for Shawon Dunston, but Chicago elected to keep Dunston (delaying his arrival in Pittsburgh until 1997). Doughty also sought Rey Quinones from the Mariners, but balked at an asking price of Doug Drabek or John Smiley.
The Pirates went to Spring Training 1989 with Belliard and Fermin as the shortstop favorites, along with dark horse candidacies from falling prospect Sammy Khalifa and rising prospect Jeff King. On March 25, however, Doughty altered the mix significantly by trading Fermin to Cleveland for 23-year-old Jay Bell. Bell, Minnesota's first-round draft pick in June 1984, had already been dealt for a future Hall of Famer (the Twins sent him to the Indians as part of a package for Bert Blyleven in August 1985), homered on his first major-league pitch (off Blyleven, coincidentally, in September 1986), and lost a starting shortstop position through two months of weak hitting (with the 1988 Indians). "Our people feel Bell has a chance to develop some power," Jim Leyland told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the trade. "We didn't feel Fermin was a franchise player, so it's worth a try."
Leyland installed Bell as the Pirates' shortstop for the first three games of the season and five of the first nine, but none of the hoped-for power manifested itself: Bell went hitless in his first 15 at-bats. Plagued by April injuries to Gott, Sid Bream, Mike LaValliere, and Andy Van Slyke, the Bucs staggered to a 6-10 start through April 21. In the meantime, Belliard's own small-sample performance, a .323/.344/.387 hot streak in his first 31 at-bats, seemed to earn him a longer look in a starting role.
Still, Doughty remained unsatisfied. On April 21, he swung his second trade for a shortstop in less than four weeks. This one sent starting pitcher Mike Dunne, 1987 first-round draft pick Mark Merchant, and a pitching prospect to Seattle for Quinones and left-handed pitcher Bill Wilkinson. Seattle's starting shortstop for the previous two seasons, the 25-year-old Quinones had a reputation for high talent: Ted Williams, no small authority on hitting, had praised Quinones' during his pre-Seattle tenure with the Red Sox, and former teammate Glenn Wilson gushed "He's a very, very talented shortstop" when the Post-Gazette had queried him after the trade. His baseball card showed 77 extra-base hits during 1987-88.
But an ominous flipside accompanied Quinones' talent. The Pittsburgh Press noted that Quinones had gone AWOL from the Mariners three times in four seasons and opined that "[n]ot since Enrique Romo disappeared into the Mexican wilds a decade ago have the Pirates had a more puzzling and bizarre personality." Doughty himself conceded that Quinones "kind of limps when it's convenient now." Regardless, Quinones became the starting shortstop, Belliard slipped to the backup role, and Bell took his .050/.050/.095 slash line (in 22 plate appearances) to the AAA Buffalo Bisons.
None of this reorganization would right the Pirates' fortunes. By the All-Star break, the Bucs were firmly in fifth place in the NL East and well below .500. Quinones' offensive numbers had dropped significantly below his Seattle output: through July 21, his Pittsburgh slash line stood at .201/.253/.298. With subpar defense (including 19 errors), Quinones' -1.1 WAR had accomplished the unexpected-but-unwelcome feat of comparing unfavorably to even the shortstopping of Messrs Belliard, Pedrique, and Fermin over the previous summer.
On July 21, the Pirates split a doubleheader with the Dodgers at Three Rivers Stadium. In both games, Quinones errors led to unearned Los Angeles runs. The next day, the team made the stunning move of releasing Quinones outright.
The rationale for the move went deeper than the lagging numbers. "We said when we came here in 1986 that we would not tolerate lackadaisical play and he gave us the poorest effort we've ever gotten from a player," Leyland told the Press. "I may pay a steeper price than anybody for this, but I had dignity when I came here and I'm going to leave with dignity. You don't change the standards you manage with because a guy just won't play."
Blessed with an opportunity was Bell, who returned to the majors after hitting .285/.370/.486 in Buffalo. Belliard started at shortstop for the Saturday night game after Quinones' release (an 8-4 loss to the Dodgers) and the first game of the next day's doubleheader (a 4-3 loss to the Dodgers), with Bell making cameo appearances in the late innings of games. For the second game of the doubleheader, Leyland deemed Bell ready for a start against Los Angeles rookie John Wetteland.
Rick Reed, called up from Buffalo for a spot start, matched Wetteland in a pitchers' duel on a hot and sunny afternoon. Reed surrendered a first-inning run to the defending World Champions on a Franklin Stubbs RBI single, but allowed no further hits through the seventh inning.
Wetteland, two years removed from becoming a full-time reliever, likewise stymied the Pirates, holding them to two hits through six innings. But Glenn Wilson worked him for a one-out walk in the seventh. One out later, Junior Ortiz's double down the left-field line scored Wilson to tie the game.
The score remained 1-1 heading to the bottom of the tenth. Bell's first three plate appearances—two against Wetteland and one against reliever Alejandro Pena—had yielded no hits, and his 1-for-25 start to the season now reflected itself in the ".040" in the batting average space on Three Rivers' scoreboards.
Bell led off the tenth against right-hander Tim Crews, the Dodgers' fourth pitcher of the game. At this juncture, the power that Leyland had referenced in March suddenly emerged: Bell crushed Crews' pitch off the wall in right center for a double.
The hit triggered a managerial chess match. Lasorda ordered an intentional walk of Barry Bonds. Leyland responded by directing Jose Lind to bunt, but Lind popped up to Crews for the first out.
Switch-hitting rightfielder R.J. Reynolds, who had batted left-handed in all eight previous plate appearances during the doubleheader, followed Lind. Seeking to turn Reynolds around to the right side, Lasorda summoned a left-hander, a 34-year-old journeyman named Ray Searage.
Searage got ahead of Reynolds with a strike, and then threw a hanging breaking ball. Reynolds singled to left, Bell scored, and the Pirates walked off with a 2-1 victory.
Rey Quinones' brief, erratic tour of duty with Team Pittsburgh is finished. Convinced that their enigmatic shortstop's considerable physical gifts are bonded permanently to a tiny attention span, the Pirates on Saturday directed Quinones to the clubhouse door and reminded him to shut it behind him on his way out of the major leagues. They did not trade him because nobody wanted him. They did not demote him to Buffalo because it finally occurred to them that Quinones is what he is. Once a space cadet, always a space cadet. Donald Trump will be standing in a soup kitchen line before Rey Quinones gets his game face on.
- Bruce Keidan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
OK, so it was a mistake. You know it. Pirates General Manager Larry Doughty knows it, Rey Quinones knows it and by now 800 million Chinese may know it. But don't be too fast dialing those talk shows to say Doughty failed in his effort to trade for a shortstop with punch. No, it wasn't Quinones, but what of Jay Bell? Jay Bell? Isn't he the guy who was given the job out of spring training and proceeded to go 1 for 20 and bat his way to Buffalo? Isn't he the guy Doughty got for Felix Fermin, now firmly entrenched as the Cleveland Indians' starter?
- Bob Hertzel, The Pittsburgh Press
"The average may not look good right now, but I'm going to hit. No one has ever questioned my ability to play defense. I have proved I was a major-league shortstop. But now I know I can hit, too. I'm 23 and I have a lot career ahead of me. I may not be a superstar, but I am going to do all I can to be as good as I can be and, if I become a superstar, then that's what it will be."
Leyland started Bell at shortstop the next night and in all but four of the season's final 68 games. Bell's hitting struggled for two more weeks, but from August 8 to the end of the season his slash line was a robust .307/.361/.407. He would not relinquish the Pirates' shortstop position until Cam Bonifay—the successor of Doughty's successor as Bucco general manager—traded him to Kansas City after the 1996 season.