Of all the special things that will happen at the All-Star Game July 11, none will be better than this:
Seeing Chuck Tanner at PNC Park, in the National League dugout, wearing a Pirates uniform, his familiar No. 7 on his broad back and maybe a few Stargell stars on his ballcap.
Tanner said the thought gives him chills.
I'm here to tell you he isn't the only one feeling them.
For one brief moment, we'll all get to step back in time, to 1979, a year when the Pirates ruled baseball. The kids in high school today who have never seen the Pirates have so much as a winning season have to trust me on this one. The Pirates really did win the '79 World Series, beating the Baltimore Orioles in seven games.
Tanner managed that club.
Phil Garner was his second baseman.
Now, almost 27 years later, the two will be reunited in a Pittsburgh dugout.
It's happening because of an act of kindness, friendship and loyalty by Garner that says almost as much about his character as it does of Tanner's. Garner, now the Houston Astros' manager, will be the National League skipper at the All-Star Game. A few weeks ago, he asked baseball officials to allow Tanner to sit at his side during the game. They readily agreed.
"I consider Chuck to be my mentor," Garner said this week. "He pretty much made my major-league career."
Said Tanner, "I had tears in my eyes when Phil told me what he did."
This amazing tribute comes at a challenging time in Tanner's life. His wife, Babs, has been dealing with serious health issues for several years. Most days, he's with her at New Castle's Jameson Memorial Hospital, where she has been a patient since early April, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. There can't be a more devoted husband anywhere.
But baseball still is a big part of Tanner's world if only because of the respite it provides him. He makes the drive from his New Castle-area home to PNC Park for most Pirates games in his role as a Cleveland Indians scout. It's fair to think those games keep him going. He will turn 77 on the Fourth of July.
Now, Tanner is getting one more chance to be in uniform.
The standing ovation for him during the All-Star introductions should be deafening.
It's unfortunate Tanner never has received quite enough credit for what he did for his hometown Pirates in '79, delivering what almost certainly will be the last World Series title of our lifetime. One reason is the Steelers, who trumped the Pirates by winning their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons under Chuck Noll that same year. Another is the sad way that Tanner's era with the Pirates ended after some of his players betrayed him by bringing drugs and drug dealers into his clubhouse. His final Pirates team lost 104 games in 1985, the horrible summer of the baseball drug trials in Pittsburgh.
But none of that should detract from what the '79 Pirates achieved. They didn't just win the championship without a 15-game winner or a 95-RBI man. They did it by coming back from a three-games-to-one deficit against the Orioles, winning the final two games in Baltimore. No major-league baseball, NHL or NBA team has won a Game 7 in a deciding series on the road since.
"They were such tough, tough guys," Tanner said of his players.
So was their manager.
Tanner's mother, Anne, died the morning of Game 5 against the Orioles. While Pittsburgh celebrated as the City of Champions a few days later, he had to go back to New Castle to bury her.
Tanner's strength during that time through the incredible emotional highs and lows is just one of many reasons Garner has so much respect for him.
"Most managers today couldn't manage that '79 team," Garner said. "We just had so many different personalities. We had blacks. We had whites. We had Panamanians. And we were all so head-strong. I know how stubborn I was. Tim Foli thought he was the smartest baseball man in the world at that time. And Dave Parker, he was always woofing at somebody."
Somehow, Tanner, with a big assist from team captain Willie Stargell, kept it all together.
"Chuck made it work because he gave us our space and let us do our thing our way," Garner said. "But, at the same time, he knew when to rein us in. He had a great sense of timing that way. We all respected him and even feared him a little. He definitely knew when to put the hammer down."
Because the Pirates won, Tanner managed the National League All-Stars in 1980. They beat the American League, 4-2.
"That was a thrill for me, but this one will be the biggest thrill of all," Tanner said.
"All this time has gone by, all these years. You think that no one remembers you and then, all of a sudden, you get a call like that ... "
Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
That the roar for Garner during the pregame introductions also should rock PNC Park?
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1525.