In another look back at when things weren't rotten, let us turn to the 1977 season. Danny Murtaugh retired as the Pirates' manager following their second-place finish in 1976 and passed away, aged 59, after years of health issues, before the year was out. Meanwhile, in Oakland, Chuck Tanner had just managed the A's to a close second in the AL West. At the time of his hiring a year earlier, A's owner Charlie Finley had believed that the Chicago White Sox still owed Tanner his ChiSox salary through 1978. But when the league office ruled that Bill Veeck's obligations were at an end due to Tanner taking the Oakland job, Finley decided he couldn't afford Tanner's services any longer.
As the Pirates were in search of a manager, and Tanner was now available, and from the area, the deal came together quickly. To Finley, the only course less appealing than keeping Tanner was firing him, potentially owing the rest of his contract, and then paying another manager besides. Finley was eager to deal, and the Pirates sent Manny Sanguillen to Oakland, with $100K to cover Finley's obligations to Tanner.
As much as Willie Stargell, Sanguillen was the heart and soul of the team, and coming off another strong season (.290/2/36), but entering his mid-30s, his trade value would accordingly decline. His back-up, Duffy Dyer, played in a career-high 94 games in 1977, and was excellent defensively, but only held his own at the plate (.241/3/19). Ed Ott (who turned 70 this week purely to make me feel old), had the lion's share of a platoon with Dyer and had a nice first full season (.264/7/38) and combined with Dyer to steal 13 bases.
As noted previously, the Pirates made another deal with Oakland, getting Phil Garner in exchange for Doug Bair, Tony Armas, Mitchell Page, Rick Langford, Doc Medich and Dave Giusti. But an even bigger move was trading Richie Zisk to the White Sox for Rich Gossage and Terry Forster; Tanner had managed them in Chicago. Moving the slow-footed Zisk allowed the Pirates to play Al Oliver in left field and install Omar Moreno in center, which improved their defense and gave them tremendous speed on the base paths, as Tanner preferred. But it also cost them a major power hitter, along with the loss of Sanguillen, and Moreno was not yet skilled at the plate.
As a career back-up, Duffy Dyer was not an ideal option to start on a contender. Thurman Munson was starting to make noises about retiring if the Yankees didn't trade him to Cleveland, near his home in Canton, but the Indians had little to offer in trade, were not in contention, played in the same division as New York, and in any case, could not afford the contract. The only other options were Detroit (same problems, aside from money), Cincinnati (where Johnny Bench was still in place), but both too far to commute by car with any regularity, and Pittsburgh, which was the best fit. A contending team, only about 30 minutes longer for driving time than Cleveland, and a quick trip by plane, and in need of a catcher with Sanguillen gone. Predictably, George Steinbrenner dragged his feet until Munson gave the owner an ultimatum, and Steinbrenner promised to try to make a deal with the Indians before the 1980 season. (Munson, who was taking flying lessons, was killed when he crashed his plane at the Akron airport in August of 1979.)
The Pirates had their highest win total since 1972 (96 wins), and were an exciting team to watch. Much of their success could be attributed to Tanner's aggressive style, with everyone on the run, and a greater emphasis on defense (Frank Taveras notwithstanding). Also, Tanner was a good fit in the room; he was a change from Murtaugh, but not as much of a tonal adjustment as Larry Shepard or Bill Virdon. On paper, with an ordinary bench group including the likes of Mario Mendoza, Jim Fregosi, Jerry Hairston and a fading Bobby Tolan, as well as whoever wasn't catching that day, the Pirates were heavily reliant on their starting eight. Stargell missed much of the season, leaving first base to Bill Robinson. Robinson did so well that the Pirates felt safe trading Oliver to Texas after the season for Bert Blyleven and John Milner. (In the deal, Texas got Jon Matlack, the Mets got Willie Montanez and Tom Grieve, and the Braves got journeymen.)
Along with their newfound aggression on the base paths, the Pirates' pitching was strong. John Candelaria won 20 games, and Jim Rooker won 14. Jerry Reuss and Bruce Kison were inconsistent, and neither Larry Demery nor Odell Jones distinguished themselves. Forster divided his time between the bullpen and filling in for Demery and Jones, but did not have one of his better seasons. But the bullpen, led by Gossage, Kent Tekulve, and Grant Jackson, was dominant. Even so, the Phillies topped the 100-win mark, and any chance the Pirates had was scuppered by Rennie Stennett's broken ankle. Garner took over at second base, with Bill Robinson and Ken Macha handling third in Garner's stead.
Just as the 1978 season was getting underway, Elias Sosa and Miguel Dilone were shipped to Oakland in exchange for Sanguillen. Rather than returning to his former role, Sanguillen was brought in to spell Stargell at first base while Ott handled the catching, with Dyer in reserve, and Milner and Robinson commenced their left field platoon. Forster and Gossage left via free agency, but were replaced by rookies Ed Whitson and Don Robinson, with Tekulve slotting into Gossage's closer role. The Pirates also benefitted by picking up Jim Bibby after Cleveland could no longer afford his contract and an arbitrator ordered Bibby be made a free agent. Initially, Bibby was to go to the bullpen, but ended up in the rotation, mainly in place of Jerry Reuss, who continued to struggle.
Within a short time, Tanner and Harding Peterson had kept the Pirates' core (Parker, Stargell, Stennett, Candelaria, Tekulve, Rooker, Reuss, and the returning Sanguillen) mostly intact, but had also made moves that transformed the club into the type of team Tanner wanted to put on the field. It was now Lumber and Lightning, with an emphasis on the lightning. They finished second again in 1978, but this time it went down to the final day of the season, and changed the Phillies' offseason approach, which in turn affected the Pirates, as we will see soon enough.