As always, it seemed the New York Mets would be standing clearly in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ path to the National League East Division title in 1990.

While the Pirates were coming off a dreadful 1989, doomed by catastrophic injuries and misfortune, these were a bunch of talented Pirates who thought their time was at hand.

“The Mets were always there,” said Jay Bell, who became the Pirates’ shortstop in 1989 and helped move the team toward a championship. “We had to figure out a way to beat them.

“We knew we had a chance to be pretty good. We felt we could win the National League East Division and win the World Series. But we had to win the division first. That meant beating the Mets.”

Clearly, the Pirates’ fortunes changed when Syd Thrift was hired as general manager and, in turn, Jim Leyland was hired as manager after the 1985 season.

Neither was a household name. But a new ownership group that saved the franchise from moving out of Pittsburgh after a horrendous 57-104 record in 1985 and the embarrassing and ugly MLB drug trials in Pittsburgh, entrusted the two to lead the once-proud franchise back to respectability.

Through a series of trades, player development and the steady and firm guidance from Leyland, the Pirates did find their way back to being competitive and of championship caliber.

But there was the Mets – World Series champions in 1986 and NL East champions in 1988. In the midst of that run and their dominance over the Pirates, Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden dubbed the Pirates a bunch of “Little Leaguers.”

The Mets owned the Pirates. In 1986, New York beat the Pirates in 17 of 18 games. The next two seasons, Pittsburgh did a little better losing 12 of 18 in 1987 and 1988. The Pirates, though suffering through the 1989 season, managed to split 18 games with the Mets.

That set the stage for 1990.

No one minded discussing the elephant in the room.

“We started to turn things at the end of the 1987 season,” said Mike LaValliere, who became a team leader as the catcher. “We didn’t want it to end. We had a lot more confidence going into the 1988 season.

“We started relying on one another and we had each other’s backs. But there was a big hurdle. That was the Mets. We still were not fully confident we had the manpower to beat the Mets.”

Gene Lamont, one of the Pirates’ coaches, said the team was ready to win in 1988.

“You could see it coming,” Lamont said. “We had our hearts broken in 1989 because of all the injuries. But we had some premium players. We had brought in good players. Barry Bonds was becoming the best player in the game.

“We knew it would be a tough division. But we thought surely we had a chance. We knew we had to beat the Mets. They were always there.”

This time, the Pirates weren’t going to be intimidated or stopped. They did not take long to serve notice.

Opening Day 1990 came April 9, a sunny afternoon at Shea Stadium. One would have thought the game was in Williamsport because this was one that looked like men versus boys.

The Pirates knocked around Gooden and wasted the Mets, 12-3. Bell, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla combined for nine hits and eight RBI.

Jose Lind had three hits and two RBI and winning pitcher Doug Drabek added a hit and two RBI and five solid innings. Four Pirates relievers did not allow a run.

“I honestly feel we might have won the division on Opening Day,” Leyland said. “We won 12-3 and all of a sudden, they knew we were good. It really kicked off in 1990 for us.

“It set a good tone. We did that in New York. The Mets had their way with us for a long time.”

The Pirates were on their way. The ups and downs were many, but the belief did not waver.

And the season, while off to a great start would not be defined until an early September night in Pittsburgh when, once and for all, the Pirates made it clear they were the team to beat in the NL East, not the Mets.

Building a winner

Only a few players on the 1990 Pirates were part of the organization before Thrift and Leyland entered the picture.

The lone holdovers were pitcher Bob Walk, signed as a free agent in 1984, pitcher Bob Kipper, acquired from the California Angels in August 1985 and outfielder R.J. Reynolds and first baseman Sid Bream, who along with Cecil Espy were acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Bill Madlock.

Those trades were made by Joe Brown, who returned as GM in 1985 after Harding Peterson was fired.

Thrift, then his successor, Larry Doughty, added players who shaped the 1990 team.

Thrift added Drabek, LaValliere, Van Slyke, Bonilla, John Cangelosi and Bob Patterson through trades.

Doughty traded for Bell and Neal Heaton in 1989 and added free agents Wally Backman, Gary Redus, Don Slaught, Bill Landrum and Doug Bair, all important members of the 1990 team.

Doughty’s biggest move came late in the 1990 season when he acquired left-handed pitcher Zane Smith from Montreal, which included trading minor leaguer Moises Alou. Doughty was criticized for the trade but Smith helped secure the division championship.

Doughty also was condemned for losing top prospect Wes Chamberlain, an outfielder, on a waiver snafu but did manage to acquire Carmelo Martinez in the deal.

“I remember 1985 and the cleaning of the house,” said Walk. “Sid and R.J. were brought in and things were starting to happen to the roster. Joe Brown started making those moves and he was well respected around the league. Things were pretty much a mess then.

“That season there was public name calling by some of our players of the former general manager, the drug trials. It was just a mess.

“When the new regime came in, it was a different feeling and vibe right away. I give a lot of credit to Jim (Leyland). He got his own players. It became a much tighter ship from that point on. He told us we had to take more pride in what we were doing and we had to start winning some games. He stressed being focused and serious about the game. As far as any messing around, Jim put an end to that.”

While Leyland commanded the ship on the field, Thrift worked magic in the front office.

The Pirates built from the floor up. They made good use of two high draft picks. Bonds was their top pick in 1985 (6th overall) and third baseman Jeff King was the No. 1 pick in the 1986 draft.

In addition to trades, they developed their own from the system. Lind, Belliard, John Smiley, Stan Belinda, Orlando Merced and others were either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.

But it was Thrift’s trades, two in particular – getting Drabek and two pitchers from the New York Yankees and acquiring LaValliere, Van Slyke and pitcher Mike Dunne from St. Louis for catcher Tony Pena on April Fool’s Day 1987 – that set the course for the club.

“Every time Syd made a trade, he brought back some pitching,” Leyland said. “He always tried to do that no matter who else he got. We just kept grinding away at it.”

Said Bell: “We put a really good team together,” Bell said. “We felt we were ready to win a championship. Together, we pushed to do that. The credit goes to the coaching staff, Jim and the players. We were ready to be really good.”

Championship season

The Pirates’ big opening day victory ignited what became an extraordinary season on the field and at the turnstiles.

Pittsburgh had not won a division title since 1979.

The Pirates nearly moved after the 1985 season, but were sold by John Galbreath to new owners – known as Pittsburgh Associates – a consortium of the city of Pittsburgh and local businesses. The group was spearheaded by Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri.

From a team on the brink, the Pirates had evolved to a team on the verge of contending for a division title and National League championship.

They caught the fancy of the fans, increasing attendance each season from 1986-1988 and reaching two million for the first time in 1990, drawing 2,051,806.

The Pirates were steady most of the season. Their balanced and powerful lineup was supplemented by an efficient pitching staff led by Drabek – who won the Cy Young Award – Smiley, Walk, Heaton and Randy Tomlin.

Leyland mixed and matched with a bullpen that never had a dominant closer but an array of effective lefties and righties.

“Jim did it without having the classic closer,” Lamont said. “He knew how to get matchups. He believed in those guys and he handled them deftly. It wasn’t easy. Together, they made it work.”

While Bonds, Van Slyke and Bonilla did their thing in the outfield and Bell and Lind handled the middle of the infield, Leyland utilized three platoons, Bream and Redus at first base, Backman and King at third base and LaValliere and Don Slaught at catcher.

Perhaps the most exciting game came on Memorial Day when the Pirates rallied against the Dodgers in the ninth inning to grab a 6-5 walk-off win in dramatic fashion. The Pirates scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth and won on Lind’s two-out, two-run single and a subsequent throwing error by right fielder Hubie Brooks. The game featured a benches-clearing incident in the fifth inning. It was an emotional game.

“It was one of the more exciting games we’ve won in the five years I’ve been here,” Kipper said that day, after pitching 2 2/3 scoreless innings.

“This is probably the biggest win we’ve had. We’re a first-place club and I think we proved we’re for real today.”

The Pirates maintained their lead in the division for much of the season.

Acquiring Smith, a Mets killer, was the most significant move made and it helped solidify the Pirates’ chances.

“He gave us a great weapon against the Mets,” Walk said. “I don’t think we win the division without Zane.”

“It was a good trade for our team at that time,” Lamont said. “He helped us win the division. Maybe from an outsider view it doesn’t look so good now because Moises became such a good player. But we got what we wanted and who we needed.”

“Zane was the missing piece,” LaValliere said.

Smith cemented that with his one-hitter Sept. 5 against the Mets. Keith Miller led off with a single. That was the extent of New York’s offense. Bonds’ bases-loaded, walk-off single gave the Pirates a 1-0 win – the defining game of the season. King homered twice in the nightcap and Pittsburgh won 3-1. It led to a three-game series sweep of the Mets.

Finally, the Pirates were the lead dog in the NL East.

They stumbled a bit after winning that series. Despite a six-game losing streak in September, the team gathered itself and won seven in a row and 10 of 11 before clinching the NL East on Sept. 30 in St. Louis. Denny Walling’s game-ending ground ball to Lind, who threw to Bream, is etched in the memory of those who witnessed the moment. The Pirates won, 2-0. Drabek improved to 22-6. Pittsburgh was a champion again.

The aftermath was pure joy.

“It was the most satisfying time of my baseball career,” Walk said. “It was totally amazing to me seeing everything that happened from 1985 to then.”

“The celebration was so cool,” said pitcher Ted Power. “Everyone was so happy. One thing I do remember, I think it was Bobby Bonilla who picked up Cangelosi and dunked him in a tub of ice water and he was gasping for air. For a while, Cangy wasn’t doing so well. But that was fun.”

“The day seemed like 40 hours,” LaValliere said. “We had all the energies going pregame. We had our best pitcher on the mound and we felt good. When we won, everyone was jumping around. ... When we got back to Pittsburgh, the airport was slamming. It was amazing.”

The euphoria over winning the division lingered a bit, but the Pirates readied themselves for a showdown with the Cincinnati Reds, who led wire-to-wire in winning the NL West.

“Jim and the coaches did a magnificent job with the team from the beginning and had us ready to win,” Bell said. “Jim just knew his team and players so well. Anyone there knew that.”

The Pirates won Game 1 but fell behind in the series – the last place they wanted to be because the Reds featured the “Nasty Boys” bullpen. The Pirates won Game 5 to give themselves a chance to win the series in Cincinnati. The Reds, however, won Game 6 and the series, 2-1.

The clubhouse afterward was a tomb.

“We believe we could have won the World Series,” Bell said. “We believed we were that good.”

“Jimmy was quite the organizer and quite the leader,” said pitching coach Ray Miller, a former big-league manager. “All he asked them was to do their job, execute what we asked of them. We really felt good about our chances. It was a tough ending, but we had a lot of fun together.”

For Leyland, the loss to Cincinnati was difficult. Nothing, however, will stain winning the division title or what had been accomplished in five years.

“I’ve never been prouder of a team or an accomplishment than of that group because we truly came from the ground floor,” he said. “That celebration in that clubhouse was special. So many people were enjoying the success that day and they deserved it because they busted their butt to do it.

“We finally brought back a championship to a proud organization. The fans were behind us. We built a great relationship with them. It was a great turnaround.”

John Sacco writes a bi-weekly column about local sports history for the Observer-Reporter

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!

Thank you for reading!

Please purchase a subscription to continue reading. If you have a subscription, please Log In.