Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The legend of Joe Randa: a link to the past

I am vowing here and now to avoid posting any absurdly optimistic "what-if" scenarios regarding the Steelers for at least another month. If, at the close of play on Sunday, December 3, the Steelers haven't lost a game, I'll consider looking at the rest of the AFC North and sorting things out mathematically. In the meantime, though, it's back to baseball.

Lost in all the Yuslan Herrera furor of the last week or so, an innocuous tidbit on Rotoworld passed by seemingly unnoticed:

"Joe Randa, who turns 37 in December, said he's done playing after 12 seasons in the majors."

Through no fault of his own, during the 2006 season the Joker was a microcosm of everything that's wrong with the Pirates under the Dave Littlefield regime. Despite the presence of a solid hitter capable of playing third base on a regular basis, Littlefield felt the need to spend $4 million on the services of Joe Randa.

Randa struggled in April, while this other guy came out of the gates hitting .333. When Randa went down with a stress fracture in his right foot just a day or so into the season's second month, Littlefield and Jim Tracy were left with no choice but to run aforementioned other-guy out to the hot corner every day, although Littlefield was still promising that Joe Randa was still the starting third baseman, even up until June 13, when Randa was activated and immediately inserted into the starting lineup at the expense of other-guy, who at the time was hitting .341.

Fortunately, Jim Tracy knows when he's been duped, and came to his senses and not only proclaimed other-guy the every day third baseman, but labelled him a "ballplayer," praise of the highest order from the mouth of Jim Tracy. Other-guy went on to perform some nifty defensive tricks in front of the home-town crowd at the 2006 All-Star Game and win the National League batting title.

Meanwhile, Randa had a modestly productive season, helping out wherever he was needed, even occasionally at first base, in the Pirates' quest to put some of the worst possible starting first basemen ever on the field. In that task, though, he was often defeated by the sheer incompetence of Jose Hernandez.

While some might look at Joe Randa's splits and see that he hit .410 and drove in 11 runs in the month of July and be quick to name that the biggest contribution he made to the 2006 Pirates, the fact is his biggest contribution was providing the team with their only link to the glorious, magical summer of 1997.


The scene: Kevin McClatchy is just a year removed from taking over the ownership of the Pirates and thus temporarily becoming a public hero for keeping the Pirates in Pittsburgh. However, he happened to purchase a franchise mired in debt, and in order to begin paying it off, he ordered the team stripped down and just about anyone making over the minimum to be dealt away. Jeff King, Jay Bell, Denny Neagle, Dan Plesac: all of them, scattered across the baseball landscape by general manager Cam Bonifay.

The opening day payroll in 1997 was approximately $9 million.

The Bucs were coming off a 73-89 season, and many pundits were predicting at least 100 losses for the upcoming campaign, and who could blame them? The Pirates were fielding a team that would be right at home a "Major League" movie. The opening day lineup included Jermaine Allensworth, Mark L. Johnson, 27-year-old rookie Tony Womack, and 20-year-old rookie Jose Guillen, who had never played above A-ball and celebrated being told he made the team by doing a backflip over a picnic table at Pirate City in Bradenton. And, of course, the Joker himself manning third base, having come over from Kansas City in the deal that saw Jeff King and Jay Bell liberated.

The rotation boasted four pitchers entering their first full seasons as starters in the Major Leagues. The team had no closer, and 30-year-old Minor League journeyman John Ericks was named the de facto stopper in Spring Training by new manager Gene Lamont.

The Pirates plodded through April, finishing with a 12-13 record. Along the way, John Ericks blew out his arm, and Rich Loiselle was anointed the new closer. Shortstop Kevin Elster, the Jack Parkman of the 1997 Pirates, severely injured himself about a week into May, leading the team in home runs at the time with seven. Elster would miss the rest of the season, and the Pirates would be forced to call upon the services of one Kevin Polcovich, a 27-year-old rookie who had missed the entire 1996 season due to injury. This competitive baseball, though fun while it lasted, was due to come to an end any day.

But a funny thing happened to these Pirates. This ragtag bunch of misfits kept winning games here and there. When all was said and done, the Pirates remained alive in the National League Central Division race (albeit, a very weak NL Central) until the final weekend of the entire season.

On a personal level, 1997 was also a groundbreaking year: it was the beginning of my masochistic dedication to baseball, and to the Pirates in particular. 1997 was the first spring I ever played the sport myself, which coincided perfectly with the Pirates doing something exciting on the field even they had no right to be doing so, which coincided perfectly with $1 upper deck G.A. tickets for kids under 14. The summer of '97 was the only time in the past 15 years that baseball fans in Pittsburgh have gotten to watch meaningful games after Memorial Day, and for that, I will always treasure my fond memories of this team.

  • May 14 - Perhaps my earliest distinct memory of a Pirates radio broadcast. A wild, back-and-forth affair with the Rockies at Three Rivers Stadium. 3-1 Pirates turns into 6-3 Rockies turns into 6-5 Rockies turns into 9-6 Rockies. Then, in the bottom of the 8th inning, the Pirates simply explode for nine runs, capped off by an Al Martin grand slam. The exact soundbyte I remember is, on Martin's granny, Lanny Fratarre getting caught up in the excitement, being unable to simply add four to the Pirates score, and having to count up from 11. The Pirates move to 20-18, and are in a first-place tie with the Astros in the NL Central.

    This, I believe, was also the game where the term "Freak Show" was first used in relation to the 1997 Pirates, by Greg Brown and his blatant disregard for political correctness. The name stuck, and we were treated to clips of Brent Spiner showing off his pet aliens from "Independence Day" for the rest of the season.

  • May 26 - My earliest distinct memory actually being at an entire baseball game. I have vague recollections of games in 1996 and earlier, but this was the game that truly made me fall in love with the sport. Although a 2-1, Memorial Day matinee loss to the Cubs, the 20,609 in attendance are treated to not one, but two inside-the-park home runs in the same inning, courtesy of Sammy Sosa and Tony Womack. Mark Johnson goes 0-for-4; he is on his last legs as starting first baseman for the Pirates, paving the way for Kevin Young's emergence.

  • June 29 - With a 10-8 loss at the hands of the Mets, the Pirates drop to 36-43, 3 games behind the Astros in the NL Central. This was when the fun really began.

  • June 30 - The Chicago White Sox come to town as part of interleague baseball's inaugural season. Jon Lieber not only tosses a complete game shutout, but strikes out Albert Belle four times. This is notable because Albert Belle cost more money than the entire Pirates roster in 1997.

  • July 4 - In the spring of 1997, journeyman outfielder Turner Ward was frustrated with baseball and had not planned on playing anymore. He was happily helping coach his son's tee ball team when Cam Bonifay called him on one fateful morning in late April and asked him if he'd like to play for the Pirates, a la Jake Taylor in the first "Major League." On a muggy 4th of July in St. Louis, with the Pirates streaking, Ward hits a game-tying solo home run in the 8th inning, and the Pirates take the game in the 10th on a 2-run blast by pinch hitting hero Mark Smith. I heard the whole thing on the radio at my swimming pool.

  • July 6 - The Pirates defeat the Cardinals, 6-3, for their 7th consecutive win, to move into the All-Star break at 43-43, one game ahead of the Astros in the NL Central race. Houston is due into Three Rivers Stadium for a 4-game series immediately following the break.

  • July 12 - THE defining night of the 1997 season for the Pirates. Having dropped the first two games to the Astros, Francisco Cordova comes out and hurls nine innings, striking out ten hapless Astros, walking two, and not allowing a single one of that other stat. The only problem is, the Pirates haven't managed to score any runs, having been five-hit by Astros starter Chris Holt. Ricardo Rincon pitches a hitless top of the tenth, and the stage is set for history. Jason Kendall and Turner Ward draw walks off John Hudek. Mark Smith pinch hits for Rincon with two outs, and crushes a pitch to left-center field. Game over, securing the no-hitter, and moving the Pirates back into a first-place tie. Every time I hear Lanny's call, even today I still get chills.

  • July 16 - I am at Camp Calvary for the first time. At camp, it tends to be hard to get much in the way of sports news. In later years, I would bring a clock radio so I could try to pick up KDKA at night, but back then I was almost completely in the dark. The previous night, the Pirates had rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Mets at home, 4-3, to move a game up on the Astros. Some staff member has just returned from their day off with a copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In the middle of the camp dance, they commandeer the DJ's microphone and announce that the Pirates are in first place. Cue all sorts of jock jams. Good times.

  • July 21 - Esteban Loaiza vs. Curt Schilling. Yikes. With the game deadlocked at 2 in the top of the 7th, Kevin Polcovich takes Schilling deep for one of his four Major League home runs ever, in what's probably the most ignominious moment of Schilling's career. Bucs pull to within 1.5 games of the Astros, who have started to pick up the pace.

  • July 27 - One of the last pre-scheduled doubleheaders we'll probably ever see. In San Francisco, the Pirates split the twinbill, but have fallen to 3.5 games out of first. This sticks out in my mind because I remember lugging a radio to the park so I could listen to the games and play kickball with the neighborhood kids at the same time.

  • August 25 - In the second game of another pre-scheduled doubleheader, Joe Randa and Mark Smith hit back-to-back home runs in the bottom of the 9th to give the Pirates a 4-3 victory over the Dodgers. Their record after splitting the games is 67-65. They are still hanging tough in the division, 3 games behind those pesky Astros. Sadly, it's the closest the Pirates get for the rest of the season.

  • August 31 - Bonifay, desperate for offensive firepower, deals for shortstop Shawon Dunston from the Chicago Cubs. After we were treated to numerous "Dunston Checks In" jokes, Shawon certainly did his part, hitting .394 with a .690 slugging percentage the rest of the way. Astoundingly, he didn't walk once and actually had a lower on-base percentage than batting average that month. Unfortunately, not even his heroics are enough to keep the Pirates afloat.

  • September 17 - During an otherwise unremarkable 8-4 loss to the Astros, Dave Sveum hits a pinch-hit home run, his 12th of the year. In 1997, Sveum endeared himself to me as "the old guy" on the team, and also had his most productive season OPS-wise ever.

  • September 24 - The end is nigh. With a 7-5 loss to the Mets, the Pirates fall to 3.5 games out with three games remaining, a series against the Astros in Houston. However, all the Astros have to do to clinch is take out the woeful Cubs on a dreary day in Chicago. The Cubs roll over, 9-1, and the Pirates miracle playoff aspirations are over. I hated the Cubs for a long time after that.

So, I'm sure most baseball fans will join me in appreciation for Joe Randa's serviceable career, but I personally thank Joe for his contributions to my favorite baseball season of all time, 1997.

1 comment:

My Blog said...

Some staff member has just returned from their day off with a copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.