Gene Collier: Lumber Company reflects on Pirates' 1979 World Series

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Fewer than 100 people in the recorded history of recorded history can say they threw the final pitch of the World Series, and two of them are typically at or near PNC Park for any given game.

"[Steve] Blass and I talk about that all the time," Kent Tekulve was saying Wednesday night at PNC Park. "How many kids in America grow up throwing the tennis ball off the garage door imagining either, A) they hit the home run to win the World Series like Maz or B) they get the last out of the World Series?

"How many kids dream that dream, and we both actually had the ability or had the luck to be able to do it."

Not sure what turned the conversation to the World Series on a late May evening an hour before the Pirates would attempt to pull within seven games of .500, but I suspect it was the roomful of 1979 Pirates assembled right there in the news conference area.

Yes, it has been 35 years, which deserves to be said slowly and deliberately, don't you think?

Thir-ty-fiiive yeeeaars.

"Teke" got Baltimore's Pat Kelly to fly out to Omar Moreno to vacuum-seal the Pirates' last World Series title, and clearly "last" may be interpreted either way, in the sense of being the most recent, or in the sense of cold finality. It was just as accurately a pitch Teke threw to Eddie Murray an inning before that won it.

"Runners on second and third, two out, and we walked Kenny Singleton to load the bases and get to Eddie Murray," Teke said. "The good news is, at that point in time, I didn't know Murray was gonna be a Hall of Famer. He was just pretty good then. I was just makin' pitches. We made the right pitch. He hit the ball to warning track in right field, but he had to kind of reach out and extend for it, so he didn't get it all."

He got enough of it that it initially crossed-up Dave Parker, who thankfully, Wednesday night, was sitting not 30 feet from Tekulve.

"He hit a line drive to me, a carrying line drive," said Parker, at 62 a still regal presence as he fights off the early onset of Parkinson's. "I broke to my glove side, slipped, and almost fell. I recovered and managed to catch it. If I don't catch that ball, I'd have kept running right through the fence and on out into Baltimore somewhere.

"[Bill] Madlock just confirmed that for me again. He said if you didn't catch that, you might as well have kept on running."

Had Parker not run down Murray's drive, the Orioles likely would have won, meaning Blass would have thrown the last pitch of the Pirates' last World Series eight years earlier.

But the Cobra uncoiled at that late moment on that wet night in Maryland, and so it has been only 35 years. There are longer droughts around, the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres and Miwaukee Brewers to name a current ignominious few, but those 1979 Pirates never dreamed they would be trotted out time and again like some kind of living fossil by a franchise that would soon fall on hard times, nor have they talked about it much.

"Naw, when you're playing you compartmentalize everything," Teke said. "This season is this season, then the next season, it's all sorted out. One doesn't affect the other. What we do talk about is that when most of us came through the Pirates system, how stocked that system was. If you were a hitter and you wanted to move up, you'd better hit .320 and either steal 50 bases or hit 25 homers, or you didn't move up. We were the Lumber Company and all that, but where we turned that World Series was by holding Baltimore to two runs in the last three games."

Looking at a score of them 35 years later, the 1979 World Champions, you note that their volume is way down but their smiles are as vibrant as ever. As much as anything about that championship season, they remember the way they could make their opponents feel like they were behind when they were ahead, and that's when they start thinking about the dearly departed.

"That all stemmed from Chuck Tanner," Parker said. "Chuck Tanner was the biggest optimist I've ever seen. Us, the team, with [Willie] Stargell being the leader and me being the stabilizer, we felt we were never out of a game. Willie had a saying that we were gonna throw everything on the field, including the kitchen sink."

That was as recognizable a trademark of the 1979 Pirates as the Lumber Company itself.

"That's exactly right," Tekulve said. "I remember we'd sit in the dugout and look across at the other team, and we'd be down, 3-1, or something, and we'd say, 'Look at them, they think they're winning.' "

They got behind the Orioles, 3-1 that fall. The Orioles must have thought they were winning.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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