THIS SCENARIO IS NOT OUT OF THE REALM OF POSSIBILITY: Pirate broadcaster Bob Walk is describing a trip to the mound by Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland when suddenly he says, "Wait a minute. The skipper wants a new pitcher, but he's not motioning toward the bullpen, he's motioning toward...me! He wants me to come into the game. So excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, while I turn the microphone over to Steve Blass and hurry down to the held."
Yes, it may come to that this season. The 37-year-old Walk, who led the Pirates in wins (13) and was second on the club, to Steve Cooke, in innings pitched in '93, is now in the broadcast booth, having found the free-agent waters lukewarm. Last winter the Pirates offered Walk a contract worth $300,000 plus incentives, but he turned it down in hopes of getting a better deal elsewhere. They can re-sign him after May 1, and the way things appear, he might have them over a barrel. (They also might want to take a look at Blass. who last pitched in '74.)
Last year Pirate pitchers combined for the club's worst ERA (4.77) since 1954. Opposing batters hit .280, an average that would get them to the doorstep at Cooperstown. In 51 of 162 games, the Pittsburgh starter failed to get an out in the sixth inning. And what's more, the Pirates have kept their pitching staff virtually intact from the '93 season.
Now the lefthanded Cooke did a very nice job in his rookie season, going 10-10 with a 3.89 ERA in 210⅖ innings. And Leyland thinks that righthander Paul Wagner (8-8, 4.27) has the stuff to someday be the staff ace. But after those two, it's the usual suspects. The Pirates are counting heavily on Zane Smith, even though the 33-year-old lefthander has suffered from shoulder ailments the last two years. Also, Randy Tomlin has not completely recovered from off-season elbow surgery, but the southpaw has pitched well enough in exhibition appearances to make the trip north. So much for the rotation.
The bullpen may be an even sadder story. The closer was supposed to be Alejandro Pena, who pitched nary an inning last year following elbow surgery. His much-anticipated return on March 3 was a success: He pitched a 1-2-3 ninth against the Twins. "I was so nervous I felt like a rookie boy," said Pena. Eight days later, though, he was shut down with bleeding ulcers. Last week the Pirates put Pena on the disabled list, hoping he will return this month.
"I guess we go to plan B," says Leyland. "I also have a plan C." Leyland and pitching coach Ray Miller have made chicken salad before, but this staff will frustrate even them.
The real shame is that the Pirates put a pretty nice team on the field. They wouldn't trade the left side of their infield—shortstop Jay Bell and third baseman Jell King—for anybody's, and they have two budding power hitters in left fielder Al (the Little Hurt) Martin and first baseman Brian Hunter. They can also catch the ball.
"We have some pretty good gloves," says centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, a five-time Gold Glove winner. "Unfortunately, they would have been put to better use last year in the outfield seats."
On March 14 the Pirates made an obscure move to help get down to their 25-man roster, but it was a move nonetheless fraught with symbolism. That day they shuffled off a handful of players to Triple A Buffalo, including a young righthander named John Hope.
The Pirates don't have a prayer, either.
The Bucs will put Hunter's firepower to more frequent use.