Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, Pirates fans were spoiled much like they were with the Steelersa��a team that began a long trend of winning that started in 1972. Winning was common with the Pirates, with World Series triumphs in 1971 and again eight years later with the a�?We Are Familya�? team led by the late, great Willie Stargell. a�?Popsa�? was also a member of that 1971 championship team.
A year before the Bucs won the 1979 World series, the Pirates were coming off a second-place finish. One that saw the New York Yankees take Major League Baseball’s title from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then, Pittsburgh won 96 games. But that would not be good enough to catch first-place Philadelphia, winners of 101.
So in 1978, the Pirates were geared up to surpass the Phillies and get back to the World Series. In 1978, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia would meet during the regular season 17 times. The Phillies took 10 of those games. The total runs scored in the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia series of 1978 fell in favor of Phillya��who scored 83 timesa��toppling the Buccos’ tally of 54.
On four occasions (August 11, 12, September 11 and 30), Philadelphia scored in double digits (15, 10, 10, and 10 respectively to the dates just listed).
Despite the domination early in the season by Philadelphia, with one stretch from August 6-12 that saw the Phillies win five straight, the Pirates stuck around. Heading into the final weekend of the 1978 season, the schedule had Philadelphia visiting Pittsburgh for the season’s final four games. Meanwhile, the Phillies were holding a 3.5-game lead with those four big games to be played in old Three Rivers Stadium.
As a youth growing up in the ‘Burgh and witnessing a ton of games played in the old Three Rivers Stadium, thinking back to what were my most memorable baseball games playeda��aside from attending all three home games of that 1979 World Series runa��the answer comes easy.
In 1978, I had taken a year off from college. I was 19 years old, and was at the first three games of that final series. It began with two games on Friday night. It began with what they called a a�?twi-night double header.a�? Two games that had a first pitch at 6:05 p.m. Dick Ruthven taking the mound for the Phillies, Bert Blyleven for the Pirates.
The scene at Three Rivers was electric. The buzz in the stadium was incredible. A sweep would send the Pirates to the National League Championship series. With a seating capacity of 59,000, Three Rivers Stadium saw 45,134 fans pouring through the turnstiles. Hopes were high that they’d be witnessing some history.
If you can believe it, a ticket for a field box seat at Three Rivers Stadium in 1978 was just $6.00! I used to purchase general admission seats in the upper decks for as little as $0.50 and $1.00. Things have certainly changed! Ushers would even allow fans to walk down to field level prior to games to try for autographs. Or, just watch the players warm up.
So in Game 1 on September 29, 1978, the contest was scoreless until the Phillies drew first blood in the top of the fifth inning with two runs. The Pirates answered with four of their own in the sixth. Then, Philadelphia knotted it up with two more in the seventh. It stayed that way until Pittsburgh came up in the bottom of the ninth.
With Ron Reed pitching and Ed Ott at the plate, he tripled. 90 feet from taking Game 1, he would score on a Gary Maddox throwing errora��providing a 5-4 victory. At 8:50 p.m., the first pitch of the Game 2 was thrown by Pirates’ starter Bruce Kisona��who was on the mound to try and get the Bucs past Phillies’ startera��and acea��Steve Carlton.
The game would become a pitching duel, with the Phillies managing to score in the second when a�?The Bulla�? Greg Luzinski smashed a solo shot. This held up until the fifth, when Kison would shock not just the fans, but Carlton as well, with a solo home run of his own. There was no more scoring until the bottom of the ninth, however. Steve Carlton was still on the mound as Dave a�?The Cobraa�? Parker led off.
Parker doubled, making it to third base when Tim McCarvera��now catching in place of Boonea��made an error. Next, Bill Robinson was intentionally walked. Seeing Willie Stargell stepping to the plate, Philadelphia manager Danny Ozark took no chances and put Stargell on base as well. Now the bases were full of Pirates.
No one could have predicted what would happen next. Ozark replaced Carlton with Warren Brusstar and McCarver with Boone. Brusstar committed a balk with Phil Garner at the plate, bringing Dave Parker to the plate with a walk-off victory. On a balk. And just like that, the Pirates swept the double-header on two walk-off victoriesa��both by errors.
Three Rivers Stadium was in pandemonium. The fans went wild. They all knew that the Pirates were heading into Saturday just 1.5 games away from taking what was then the National League East Division. With my ticket in hand, I headed back to the stadium the next day for the 2:20 start.
Much to my shock, surprise and ultimate disappointment, I was expecting another near sellout crowd. However, the official attendance was only 28,905. That’s 16,229 fans less than just the night before. To this day, I have not been able to figure out why fans did not come out on a Saturday afternoon knowing their team had a shot at the postseason.
The game began with a bang for the Pirates. After Philadelphia scored first, Pittsburgh jumped on starter Randy Lerch by scoring four runs in the bottom of the first. Willie Stargell was responsible for all the scoring with a grand slam, no less. It appeared the Pirates were putting themselves in position for a division-clinching game on Sunday.
Instead, the Phillies began to claw their way back from the 4-1 deficit with runs in the second, fourth and three in the sixth to take a 6-4 lead. Randy Lerch helped his own cause with solo home runs in the second and fourth innings. How often do you see pitchers stroking home runs, let alone twice in the same game? In the sixth, Greg Luzinski struck again with another dinger, this time with two men on.
It appeared the Phillies were going to clinch the division when they added another four runs in the eighth to take a 10-4 lead as former Pirate Richie Hebner doubleda��and was 2-for-4 in the game with four RBIs. The Pirates had one last shot to salvage their season in the last of the ninth with Tug McGraw on the mound and Ed Ott again leading off.
This time, Ott singled. Cito Gaston singled. Frank Taveras singled. Omar Moreno was next and on an infield grounder, the only play was to second base but Ott scored. Dave Parker singled in another run, as did Bill Robinson. Now with the score 10-8, the Pirates had a chance. Willie Stargell stepped to the plate to face Ron Reeda��in for reliefa��but the big man struck out. It came down to Phil Garner representing the tying run. A groundout to shortstop ended the game, and essentially the Pirates season.
Now 2.5 games behind with one to play, Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes were dashed. Sunday October 1 was just a consolation and bizarre as it is, an attendance of 30,224 came through the gates at Three Riversa��a little over a thousand more than from the day prior when it was a must-win game. The final game of the series was being played with no purpose.
The Pirates came out the winner (5-3), but it was too little too late. Philadelphia won the division with 90 wins and the Pirates finished 88-73a��1.5 games behind. The Dodgers would knock Philadelphia off in the league championship series three-games-to-one, but the Dodgers would ultimately fall to the pinstripes in the World Series.
The next year was Pittsburgh’s year, though, as they beat the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series riding Sister Sledge’s song a�?We are Familya�? all the way to the Pirates fifth world title. And, the last one they would win. That 1979 campaign was perhaps the most special season in Pirates’ history. But for one weekend in 1978, the Pirates treated fans to one very special evening. And I was there.
Below: Ed Ott scores winning run in Game 1 of the doubleheader.
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