The explanation to each of the Pittsburgh Pirates stated that the meeting was being called so that the players, the coaches and the manager could discuss baseball and also reaffirm the spirit and pride which they developed too late in the 1965 season. The reasoning seemed logical enough, although since when did baseball players convene in December—and in blustery Pittsburgh, of all places—to talk about baseball? But it also was a good time to exchange Christmas gifts, and last year the ideal present for the Pirates was a Harry Walker doll—wind it up and it never stops talking.
Manager Harry Walker has an incessant tongue, and he admits it. Last year. Walker's first as Pittsburgh manager, the Pirates lost 24 of their first 33 games and were in last place, lower than—yes—even the Mets. Whereas Danny Murtaugh, who had retired as manager after the 1964 season, always let the Pirates play their own game and rarely blasted them verbally. Walker hounded them. He chattered away, Bill Mazeroski says, about "little things we never heard before, and the guys couldn't understand this."
For a time the situation bordered on a rebellion. Then Walker met with three players—Mazeroski, Jim Pagliaroni and Bill Virdon—and both sides sat down to consider their grievances. "Harry asked us what he could do to get the club going, and we told him what we thought," said Pagliaroni. "He asked us to talk to the players and try to explain to them exactly what he was trying to do. Harry is an extrovert and a perfectionist. He wanted his players to do things even better than what they thought was their best. From that day both sides have understood each other, and right now I'm sure there's more harmony on the club than any in the majors. We're told that the Yankees used to have this type of harmony, and that they'd always get off to a good start while the other clubs were getting acquainted. This year we want to get oft" like the Yankees used to."
After that 9-24 start, the Pirates won 81 and lost only 48, played just about the best baseball in the major leagues and finished in third place, No longer did players complain in the clubhouse; the ones who did (Dick Schofield, Gene Freese and, to a lesser extent, Bob Friend) were traded. Harry-Walker still was garrulous, but he had his players talking and thinking baseball at all times—which is what he had wanted all along. "That meeting in December helped reinforce the pride we had last year, once things got straightened away," says Walker.
From that crisis, too, emerged the Pirates' new leader—Pagliaroni, a catcher who, says Walker, "is the buffer between me and the players." Although Mazeroski is the team captain, he is a leader only in the sense that he is the best second baseman in baseball and the player most respected by his teammates. "But I'm no holler guy," says Mazeroski, "or one to go in and talk to a pitcher and all that. I just want to do my job out at second base. Pag's the guy who runs the club, and he's just about the only holler guy we got."
Pagliaroni, a sound catcher and a productive hitter, talks confidently about the Pirates and the National League pennant. "I don't know where we'll finish this year," he says, "but the key to the whole season is whether Vernon Law's elbow is O.K., and in spring training Law pitched as well as I've ever seen him."
Pitching, or the lack of it, will be the determining factor on how the Pirates do, because the rest of the team is solid. Mazeroski and Gene Alley, the young shortstop, are the best double-play combination in the league. First Baseman Donn Clendenon hit .301 with 96 runs batted in last season, and Third Baseman Bob Bailey, a good hitter. has improved unbelievably in the field. "I used to think you got a pay raise only because of your hitting," said Bailey, a $175,000 bonus player a few years ago, "but Harry and Pag convinced me otherwise." Bailey no longer trips over his own feet or lets a majority of ground balls get through him or throws the ball into the stands. That will astound some people, but it's true.
Roberto Clemente says he is feeling fine—which is so unusual that some of the Pirates fear Roberto, who seems to play best when he feels worst, will not win his third straight batting title. Matty Alou and Manny Mota will platoon in center field, and Willie Stargell, who has had operations on both his knees the last two years, is again in left. Stargell hit 21 home runs and had 66 runs batted in before the Ail-Star Game but had only six homers and 41 RBIs the rest of the year. "I put on some weight I didn't need," Stargell explains, "and I was trying to hit home runs. That won't happen again this year."
With Jerry Lynch to pinch-hit, both Andre Rodgers and Jose Pagan to fill in around the infield, and either Alou or Mota sitting down, the Pirates have a capable bench.
Pitching, though, remains a question mark. If Law is O.K. (he had winning streaks of eight and later nine games last year after losing his first five starts), then he and lefthander Bob Veale rate behind only Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale as a pitching entry. Don Cardwell, Tommie Sisk and Steve Blass, who was the International League's best last year at Columbus, are the only other starters, and all three must have excellent years (a total of at least 40 victories) if the Pirates are to make a real bid for the pennant. Pete Mikkelsen, obtained from the Yankees in the deal for Bob Friend, and Don Schwall, who pitched very well last year and would like to become a starter again, are set for long relief. Al McBean and El Roy Face are the best short-relief pair in the league.
There is no way the Pirates can start as poorly as they did last season. If Law's elbow holds up and a Blass or a Sisk has a big year on the mound, Pittsburgh could win the pennant.
No one in the majors pivots on the double play better than Second Baseman Bill Mazeroski.