1987 Pittsburgh Pirates
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1987 Pittsburgh Pirates / Franchise: Pittsburgh Pirates / BR Team Page
Managed by Jim Leyland
History, Comments, Contributions
The 1987 Pittsburgh Pirates season represented a vast improvement over the prior year's campaign. After losing 98 games in Jim Leyland's first year as a manager in 1986, the club opted for a youth movement in 1987. In the off-season, they had traded veterans Rick Rhoden, Cecilio Guante and Pat Clements to the New York Yankees for prospects Doug Drabek, Brian Fisher, and Logan Easley. On April 1st, GM Syd Thrift pulled off his most successful trade, sending popular and talented catcher Tony Pena to the St. Louis Cardinals for three more prospects, Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere and Jose Lind. All three became regular members of the lineup within a year, while Drabek and Fisher joined the starting rotation. That added to a team that already featured youngsters Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, John Smiley and Bob Kipper.
In Grapefruit League play, the Bucs were 13-13. Bonilla batted .394 and drove in 20 runners in 22 contests. They began the season with this opening day lineup:
- 1. Barry Bonds, CF
- 2. Junior Ortiz, C
- 3. Johnny Ray, 2B
- 4. Bobby Bonilla, LF
- 5. Andy Van Slyke, CF
- 6. Jim Morrison, 3B
- 7. Sid Bream, 1B
- 8. Rafael Belliard, SS
- 9. Bob Patterson, P
Patterson was the first rookie pitcher to start on opening day for the Pirates since Preacher Roe in 1944. On April 10th, Morrison homered twice in the home opener to give the Bucs a 4-3 win. They lost their first two games and went 8-11 in April. Highlights of the month included a triple play that went Ray-to-Bream-to-Denny Gonzalez-to-Ortiz on April 21st, Mike Schmidt's 500th career homer on April 18th (against Don Robinson) and a four-hitter by Bob Kipper on April 16th.
On May 5th, Belliard hit one of two career homers, as part of a 10-8 win over Eric Show. The Pirates struggled through May and June (26-31 in that span), though they were clearly more competitive than the previous year's veteran team. The club also continued to get younger when they dealt Bill Almon for Al Pedrique on May 29th and called up Mike Dunne on June 1st. On June 29th, the Pirates lost a 6-5 game to the Philadelphia Phillies to open a doubleheader; Steve Bedrosian picked up his 13th save in 13 games, a new record at the time.
July remained a rocky month (11-15) though the team saw some more bright spots - Bonilla was the first Pittsburgh player to hit homers from each side of the plate in a game on July 3rd, then hit an upper-deck home run on July 12th at Three Rivers Stadium. The only Pirate to appear in the 1987 All-Star Game was 38-year-old Rick Reuschel, who was 7-4 and had the lowest ERA in the National League at 2.32.
The youth movement continued in August as the team began to improve. Don Robinson was traded for cash and Mackey Sasser, Morrison was dealt for Darnell Coles, Reuschel was sent away for Jeff D. Robinson and Scott Medvin, and Ray was traded for Bill Merrifield and a player to be named later in order to free up room for Lind. That meant that since the end of the 1987 season, Pittsburgh had disposed of nine veterans and picked up lots of young talent.
With LaValliere as the main catcher, Coles, Van Slyke and Bonds in the outfield, Bonilla, Pedrique and Lind on the infield and a staff including Dunne, Fisher, Drabek, Smiley, Patterson, Vicente Palacios and Kipper, the youth movement was in full force. With Jim Gott joining as a $50,000 waiver pickup early in August, they also had a closer. The club began to get on a roll in August and went 15-14. Drabek was NL Player of the Week after a three-hit shutout in one game and a victory in another. He would also be named Pitcher of the Month with a 5-0, 2.79 August.
That was merely setting the stage for a great September fueled by the youngsters. On September 7th, Jeff Robinson became the first NL'er since Bruce Sutter ten years earlier to strike out the side on nine pitches - and he got Leon Durham, Andre Dawson and Rafael Palmeiro, three good hitters. Two days later Robinson hit a game-winning homer and the club won seven games in a row before a loss in extra innings on September 14th. Bonilla was Player of the Week for September 7-14 by going 9 for 22 with 2 homers and 7 RBI. On September 15th, John Cangelosi became the first Pirate to pull a straight steal of home in 21 years; Mike Bielecki threw a perfect game for over six innings that day. The Pirates split six games later in September with the great New York Mets, beating Dwight Gooden on September 26th after he had made a public guarantee that the Mets would win. Coles hit 3 homers in a game on September 30th, the first Pirate in 11 years to do that.
They won 27 of their last 38 games to finish 80-82, a sign of recovery that would continue a year later.
The team got strong performances all over - LaValliere hit .300/.377/.365 and won a Gold Glove for his work behind the dish; Bonilla emerged as a star with a .300/.351/.481 season; Pedrique batted .301/.354/.362; Bonds hit .261/.329/.492 with 25 homers, 32 steals and 99 runs at just 22 years of age; and Van Slyke batted .293/.359/.507 with 93 runs, 36 doubles, 11 triples, 21 homers and 34 steals. Mike Diaz (.241/.326/.490), Ortiz (.271/.322/.329) and Cangelosi (.275/.427/.418, 21 SB) provided an excellent bench, while Lind (.322/.358/.434) gave hope for the future. On the mound, Dunne (13-6, 3.03) was second in the NL in ERA and was named NL Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. Drabek (11-12, 3.88) also impressed, while Bob Walk (8-2, 3.31) was a fine swingman and Reuschel (8-6, 2.75) had done well with the club before being traded. Jeff Robinson (2-1, 4 Sv, 3.04) and Gott (0-2, 13 Sv, 1.45) formed a good bullpen after joining the team in August. In a year characterized by strong hitting all over the majors, Fisher was average at 11-9, 4.52, the good hitting environment making his ERA appear worse than it really was. Weak spots in the rotation were Kipper (5-9, 5.94), Patterson (1-4, 6.70) and Dorn Taylor (2-3, 5.74). Rookie John Smiley (5-5, 4 Sv, 5.76) was hit hard as the most-used relief pitcher.
Overall, the team clearly left promising hopes for the 1988 season, as Walk would be the old man on the team at age 31. The hot finish and young talent would pay off, even if it took a little longer than hoped for. It is surprising that the Pirates were adverse to trying another youth movement for two decades, given the success of this one.
Main source: Pirates '88 Yearbook
Awards and Honors
- All-Star: Rick Reuschel
- NL Gold Glove: Mike LaValliere (C) and Rick Reuschel (P)
- Topps All-Star Rookie Team: Mike Dunne (RhP) and Al Pedrique (SS)
- Tom Heinlein: "Tim Raines Hits for the Cycle; August 16, 1987: Montreal Expos 10, Pittsburgh Pirates 7 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 82-83. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6