A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Pirates’ middle infield situation, focusing largely on shortstop but eventually getting to second base. There, the Pirates have incumbent Adam Frazier, but given his penchant for slow starts, I’m not the biggest fan. I’d like to see the club give Cole Tucker every shot at winning the shortstop job, thus opening the door for Kevin Newman to move to second. Frazier could then revert back to his utility role of a few years ago, getting a start now and then at second and right field.
Thinking about the second base situation brought me back to the Pirates of my youth. In the late 1960s, the club had a future Hall of Famer patrolling the position in Bill Mazeroski. Never known as a major force at the plate – except for a certain World Series at-bat against Ralph Terry of the Yankees – Maz was a magician with the glove, turning the double play better than perhaps any second baseman who ever lived. It was his glove, and the single most impactful and dramatic home run of all time, that punched his ticket to Cooperstown.
The thing was, the Pirates had plenty more waiting in the wings. As Maz’s career wound down – he would play only 283 games total in his final four seasons from 1969-1972 -- the Pirates had a cadre of outstanding young second basemen making their way through the system. In fact, they had so many that they had to deal a few of them away – and ultimately they dealt away the wrong one.
First to arrive in Pittsburgh was Dave Cash, who first saw full-time duty in 1971, when he played in 123 games and hit .289 in his age 23 season. But Cash had plenty of competition in the form of Rennie Stennett, who came up at age 20 in that World Series championship season of ’71 and merely hit .353 with an .834 OPS in 153 at-bats. And just about to enter the system at that time was yet another standout, this one who would make his mark with the Yankees in New York – Willie Randolph.
As it turned out, Cash would last only another couple of seasons in Pittsburgh, as he was dealt to the Phillies after the 1973 season in which he batted .271 in 116 games. Cash fetched pitcher Ken Brett, who had two solid seasons before he, too, was shipped out in a deal that also involved Randolph.
The Cash trade left the door open for Stennett, who would hold down the job for most of the next six seasons. A slashing-type hitter and an aggressive player all-around, Stennett provided solid offense for a few years at a position that wasn’t known for much offense. He’s perhaps best known for being the only player in major league history to go 7-for-7 in a nine-inning game, a feat he turned against the Cubs at Wrigley Field in 1975.
But Stennett was never the same after a game against the San Francisco Giants on Aug. 21, 1977. Going into the game, the free-swinging Stennett was batting a robust .336 with an .806 OPS and had just singled home a run in the eighth inning. But moments later, on a grounder hit by Ed Ott, Stennett took off from first and began his slide into second to break up a double play, oblivious to the fact that the fielder’s only play was to first base. Stennett came in hard and awkwardly, dislocating his foot and fracturing his fibula. “If you had seen it, it would have made you sick,” Pirates manager Chuck Tanner told Pittsburgh Press reporter Dan Donovan later. “Was it twisted 90 degrees? Easily. Probably more.”
Stennett would play another four seasons in the big leagues, and he finished with a respectable career .274 batting average, but he was never the same player after the injury.
As for Randolph, the Pirates – seemingly set at second base with Stennett – sent him to the Yankees in December 1975 with Brett and the enigmatic Dock Ellis for George “Doc” Medich. Medich, who wound up attending the University of Pittsburgh medical school, had won 49 games through his age 26 season and appeared to be just what the, er, Pirates needed. But in his only season in Pittsburgh, Medich was a disappointment, going 8-11 with a 3.51 ERA in 179 1/3 innings. In those days, a 3.51 ERA was not considered good.
In the end, though, Medich wasn’t a complete washout; the following March he was one of six players dealt to Oakland in exchange for three A’s – one of whom would be a major figure in the Pirates’ next World Series title: infielder Phil Garner.
Of the three second base prospects – Cash, Stennett and Randolph -- Randolph wound up with the most stellar career. He spent 13 seasons with the Yankees and 18 seasons in the big leagues overall, finishing with 2,210 hits and a career .274 batting average. Even as late as his age-36 season he was still a force, batting .327 in 431 at-bats for Milwaukee in 1991. He would have looked awfully good in Black and Gold all those years.