Pirates: Ahoy, memories

Pittsburgh's last visit here, in 1979 Series, is still fresh to many

A rivalry restored

June 13, 2008|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN REPORTER

Whenever they are in the same room, former Orioles left-hander Scott McGregor inevitably will hear the playful taunts of fellow ex-Oriole Grant Jackson.

"He stands near me and he says, `Hey, have you ever seen my [1979] World Series ring?'" McGregor said. "And I'll say, `Yeah, that's the ring we gave you.'"

"And I say, `No way, Mac,'" Jackson retorts. "`I earned this rascal.'"

McGregor and Jackson were the pitchers of record Oct. 17, 1979, the finale of one of the most dramatic World Series in the past three decades. Jackson and the Pittsburgh Pirates won the deciding game, 4-1, to become the fourth team in baseball history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win a world championship.

The Pirates haven't played in Baltimore for a regular-season or postseason game since - at least until today, when Pittsburgh comes to Camden Yards to begin a three-game interleague series.

It's a different generation of players - a dozen members of the Orioles' current 25-man roster weren't alive in October 1979, and only two were born before the Pirates beat the Orioles in the seven-game 1971 World Series - but the memories haven't faded for those who lived it.

"They came in and whupped us," said McGregor, who allowed just two runs in eight innings in 1979's final game. "It's not fun when you've got a good handle on something and lose it. I don't hate anybody from there or anything. It was just a little bit of a regional rivalry."

Separated by a state line and a few hundred miles, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have an interesting bond, cemented by two World Series battles in one decade. Both are blue-collar sports towns. The baseball clubs are in different leagues, but the football teams, the Ravens and Steelers, are divisional rivals.

"The fans in Baltimore, I love them all, but they hate [Pittsburgh] because we also have the Steelers," said Jackson, a suburban-Pittsburgh resident who played in the World Series for the Orioles in 1971 and for the Pirates in 1979.

"It's bragging rights, but it is good stuff," he said. "It's all in fun, and the thing about it I like is there is a little camaraderie."

Or at least a little empathy when it comes to baseball.

The two proud franchises have hit rough times in the past 15 years. The Pirates have the longest streak of losing seasons in baseball, finishing under .500 for 15 straight years, dating to 1992, Barry Bonds' last year there. The Orioles are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League's longest losing stretch, 10 seasons dating to 1997.

"It just shows you how things can turn ... how hard it is to put together a winning team," said McGregor, who captured his lone World Series title ring with the 1983 Orioles. "Back then, we were winning all the time, and everyone wanted to be an Oriole or a Pirate."

Now, the clubs are hovering around .500 while playing each other for only the second time (the Orioles lost two of three in Pittsburgh in 2005) in interleague play.

"The significance is we have two teams that once were very good teams, World Series-class teams," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who pitched in each of the Orioles' six World Series. "And here we are now looking at clubs trying to rediscover themselves and that winning identity."

In the 1970s, the Orioles and Pirates were among the best clubs of the decade. The Orioles had a powerful offense, an impressive defense and baseball's top pitching, highlighted by four 20-game winners in 1971. The Pirates were bashers offensively with solid pitching.

"We had a number of good pitchers, and we were a force offensively. They called our club The Lumber Company," said Bruce Kison, an Orioles major league scout who pitched in both Series for the Pirates. "Opposing pitchers didn't like to face the Buccos. And the Orioles were a combination of both, strong pitching and a great hitting attack. When you have that tradition of championships, it's something to think about."

Both World Series were similar. Seven games each. The Orioles were the favorites and jumped out to commanding leads - 2-0 in 1971 and 3-1 in 1979 - before the Pirates rallied. And each time Pittsburgh was led by an aging Hall of Famer, Roberto Clemente in 1971 and Willie "Pops" Stargell in 1979.

"Two championship clubs, and not just championship clubs but forceful teams that were impacting, and had respect, throughout the league," Kison said. "They both went seven games and in either series, either club could have won."

Tonight, the teams face each other with much less at stake. But the Orioles' organization is seizing the opportunity to highlight its past. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver and 1979 third baseman Doug DeCinces will take part in pre-game festivities. And the teams will wear 1979 throwback uniforms, with the Orioles sporting the cartoon-bird hats and the Pirates in the striped pillbox caps.

It's unclear whether the public-address system will blast Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," the Pirates' 1979 theme.

"I really liked the song," Palmer acknowledged, "but I hated their uniforms. They had the ugliest uniforms in the history of baseball. But they could play."

Palmer, an Orioles broadcaster, will be there. And so will Jackson, McGregor and Steve Blass, a part-time Pirates broadcaster best known for his two complete-game victories in the 1971 World Series, including the Game 7 clincher.

Blass said if he is introduced to the crowd - even though his triumph was nearly four decades ago - he expects a certain response. "They'll boo the [heck] out of me, which they should do.

"I was lobbying to throw out the first pitch, and I didn't make it," Blass joked. dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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