By Louis A. Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The great sportscaster Bob Prince, once the voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates, often referred to opposing players as “big donkeys“ but only if they happened to be big donkeys. Bob loved his Pirates as much as the late Pete Franklin loved his Cleveland Indians. For both, no other team counted.
The difference between the great Cleveland teams of recent years and my Pittsburgh Pirates is that the Indians, now the Guardians, are expected to finish high in the final rankings whereas the Pirates are expected to once again be cellar dwellers.
But wait. Do my eyes deceive me or do I see the Pittsburgh Pirates at the very top of the pile? It looks as though the Pirates are even outdistancing the hated New York Yankees.
That’s right, as of this writing, the Pirates, that team that not even a baseball mother could love, are flying high in the standings and leading every team in the National League in virtually every category from home runs to stolen bases.
Wait a minute. Did I say that the Buccos were leading all other teams in stolen bases? And to think that I have been saying for years now that I may never again see the Pirates win their division. And I’ve been saying that it is unlikely that we’ll ever again see a Pirates player enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame since most players end their careers wearing caps without a Pirates logo sewn atop them.
We’ll surely see the great Omar Vizquel at Cooperstown and several other Indians. Unless Willie Stargell miraculously comes back to life, no Hall of Famer will ever again be a Pittsburgh Pirate. In many ways the small-market Pirates are serving as a minor league system for the rest of the league.
But now, here I am, describing current Pirates Oneil Cruz and Bryan Reynolds as sure-fire future Hall of Famers. Frankly, I am not sure that my heart can take a Pirates winning season.
I have followed the team since 1958 – even before the 1960 World Series team that featured Roberto Clemente. The team then won the World Series in 1971 and 1979 and I was there screaming my head off.
I do recall that my brother-in-law Mike and I drove to the Pittsburgh airport to meet the team plane. With hundreds of other fanatical fans, we ran out onto the tarmac and surrounded the plane. We began shouting Roberto! Roberto!
When Clemente emerged from the door of the plane, he looked frightened as he saw the enormous crowd surrounding it. Soon, mounted police pushed us away.
On that team, playing second base, was Bill Mazeroski. Bob Prince used to refer to him as the vacuum cleaner since he could field any ball hit between second and first base. And of course, Maz hit the most famous home run in World Series history, defeating the more talented New York Yankees.
That home run cleared the wall in left field. Incidentally that wall remains standing in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh where Yogi Berra watched Maz’s most famous hit clear the wall in Forbes Field.
Years ago, when I attended a Pirates fantasy camp, I got to spend a little time with Mazeroski and told him that in the movie “A Bronx Tale,” a small boy comes crying that Billy Mazeroski had made Mickey (Mantle) cry. Actually, it did make Mickey cry, Maz responded as he smiled at the memory.
Like so many other kids in the 1950s and 1960s, I absolutely loved Mickey Mantle, “The Oklahoma Kid.” Mickey could do it all and was probably the fastest player to play during the golden age of baseball and was the most prolific home run hitter since Babe Ruth. His 555-foot home run remains the record for distance.
People who visit my office at The Butler will see a prized photo of Maz and me along with a small painting of Roberto and Mickey’s bubblegum card. I hope to someday honor a couple of the new Pirates with such recognition of their accomplishments.
Former Pirate shortstop and World Series Most Valuable Player Dick Groat recently died at 92. Groat was a tremendous athlete who with Mazeroski formed one of the most remarkable double play combinations in history.
Groat was such an athlete that he played not only for the Pirates but also for the Boston Celtics and starred in both baseball and basketball.
I don’t know where I stand regarding former Pirate Barry Bonds not being admitted into the Hall of Fame. He was probably the greatest left fielder in the history of baseball. Barry could run, catch and hit with authority.
But the one time that he did not come through with a great throw was in 1982 when he unable to throw out an injured Sid Bream in a horrible, gut-wrenching loss to the Atlanta Braves.
My father always believed that our family had bad luck and that loss to the Braves, when the Pirates really had the best team, can be explained only as bad luck – the powerful Zona bad luck!
Let’s hope that this Zona thing does not rub off on the current Pirates squad. I can still hear my dad yelling through the television set at the third base coach for sending a Pirate home, where he was thrown out, for not being able to score on a long fly ball.
It could be only one thing, and one thing only, the Zona bad luck. I wonder how Dad would protect the young new Pirates from the curse of the Zona bad luck.