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Original Issue

Three rivers, two strikes

Failing to get timely hits from vaunted batsmen and needed relief from the bullpen, Pittsburgh's Pirates are treading water above last place

After the Pittsburgh Pirates lost last week for the sixth time in seven games, one of the players described the clubhouse: "It was so quiet all you could hear was the sound of Danny Murtaugh's rocking chair in his office.... Squeak...squeak...squeak...which was a good sign, I guess. At least he was still alive and healthy."

Three months into the season the Pirates are not as healthy as their veteran manager. Not only are they fighting to stay out of the East Division cellar, but the manner in which they are losing is causing serious concern in the front office. In a stretch of four games last week the once powerful Pirates were held to a total of 11 runs, and in one game were the victims of a four-hit, 11-strikeout shutout. In another defeat Willie Stargell came to bat with runners on base four times and managed to hit a ball into the outfield only once. "Not to put all the burden on Willie," says Relief Pitcher Dave Giusti, "but he's no longer hitting home runs in the later part of the game. No one is. We're getting enough hits, but no key hits."

"We never did play a fundamental brand of baseball," says another veteran Pirate. "We never looked for walks, stole bases or bunted runners over like, say, the Mets. This year it's catching up with us. Without that late-inning power, we're not winning. And we're unable to change our style. Most of our hitters are free swingers who seldom settle for a walk. And even if they did, it wouldn't do any good. They'd just as likely die on first base before anyone could bunt them over."

But the reasons for the decline of the once-mighty Pirates—from World Series champions in 1971 to divisional champions in '72 to third-place finishers in '73 to a club struggling at present to stay out of last place—go much deeper. They have lost many of the players who contributed most to the world championship. Roberto Clemente was killed in an airplane crash, Steve Blass' fragile pitching talent has evaporated and Nelson Briles, Dave Cash, Milt May and Vic Davalillo, among others, were traded away. These losses were spaced out so that their effect has been cumulative, like the erosion of a piece of land by the sea. Only this year has the full impact been felt.

Ironically, the man Pittsburgh misses most, according to Pitcher Dock Ellis, is Bill Virdon. "Don't get me wrong," says Dock, "I don't think Virdon was cut out to be a general. He was too honest. But he was one helluva top sergeant. When Virdon was a coach, he did everything for Danny. Danny never even had to step out of the clubhouse until game time. Now look at who Danny's got to rely on." He points toward the dugout, where Murtaugh is sitting on the steps regaling his coaches with baseball lore.

"Yes, sir," Murtaugh is saying, "I get up to bat against a major league pitcher for the first time in my life and who am I facing? Grover Cleveland Alexander." His coaches laugh.

The Pirate players, unlike the Pirate front office, are less than reverential toward Murtaugh. "Danny thinks he can treat modern ballplayers like the oldtimers he played with," says one Pirate. "He thinks we'll fall for that con job of his."

Moreover, some of the World Series veterans are past 30 and possibly no longer able to carry the load they once did. Stargell is a perfect case in point. He is a huge, soft man, with an almost inaudible voice. His teammates have nicknamed him "Gentle Ben," after the kindly bear in the television series. When Clemente was killed, Stargell was called upon to lead the Pirates both physically with his bat and emotionally with his personality. When hitting, he can lift the team, but whether he is hitting or not his unassuming personality is not the kind to inspire his teammates. "The front office made him the team captain," says Ellis. "Man, there's no way Willie wants to be captain. He don't wanna go talking to players for his manager. He's his own man. Now Virdon, or Clemente, they could talk to players, make 'em hustle."

Of the younger players, Ellis, Bob Moose and Bruce Kison have suffered injuries that have prevented them from fulfilling their potential. Moose is out for the season with a circulatory problem in his pitching arm, and Kison has only lately recovered from arm trouble so serious that a year ago he could not raise his arm above his head. Ellis claims his arm is in excellent shape, but his record is 3-6 and his ERA 4.28.

But by far the most mysterious loss of talent has afflicted 27-year-old Bob Robertson, the muscular, and now fat, first baseman. Robertson hit four home runs during the 1971 playoffs, in which he had a .438 batting average. During the 1971 season he batted .271, with 26 home runs, and the season before, .287 with 27 home runs. For the past three years Robertson has had trouble sustaining an average above .200 and has hit only 34 homers during that span. Today pitchers are gel-ting him out with high fastballs, which he handled with glee three years ago, and he moves through the Pittsburgh clubhouse like a man in a dream.

"The Pirates are still tough as far as I'm concerned," says St. Louis' Tim McCarver. "I don't know what's wrong with them, really. They don't seem to be making key defensive plays or getting key hits. But it is not any one thing. It's a mushrooming effect. One department starts to break down and that puts pressure on another department and that brings out weaknesses you never noticed before."