If you mention World Series and Pittsburgh Pirates in the same sentence, baseball fans will likely think of one of two things. Either the 1979 'We Are Family' team with Wilver Stargell and Dave Parker and others will come to mind, or perhaps if you are a little older or are thinking on more historical terms, your brain will come up with 1960, and Bill Mazeroski's home run to beat the Yankees. There was a title in between that doesn't come to mind, and it should.
Al Oliver was in Marysville this past week. He was the guest speaker before the Gold Sox game on Friday for the seventh annual Faith Night. Guests in the past have included Dave Dravecky—who lost his arm to cancer, Jim Morris—the teacher who got to the big leagues as a pitcher at age 30, and who Disney made the movie “The Rookie” about, and Bill Buckner—a great outfielder and hitter who unfortunately will always be remembered for making that error at first base in the 1986 World Series that led to an eventual New York Mets title, and denied the Boston Red Sox. All of these guests to Marysville talked about how they were able to use their faith and religion, to overcome the obstacles that life threw at them.
Oliver's story may not seem as sad, but his mother died when he was 11, and his father passed away on the very same day that he got his call to the big leagues. He went on to play 18 years (1968-85) in the majors, had over 2700 hits, a lifetime .303 average, won a batting title in Montreal in 1982, was a seven-time All-Star, and won a championship with the 1971 Pirates.
I have been fortunate enough to interview all of the Faith Night speakers, and I definitely remember Oliver and his career. A great lefty, high average, and a little power. I mostly remembered him as a Texas Ranger and Montreal Expo, and even knew he played briefly for the Dodgers in his final season. In preparing for the interview, though, I had to look it up, and felt embarrassed afterward that I didn't recall the 1971 World Series. Some of you may be ahead of me, but Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in seven games, and the Most Valuable Player was a guy named Roberto Clemente.
My interview with Oliver was in two segments. In the first, we primarily talked about his message, and what he's doing today (about 20 speaking engagements a year like this one). In the second segment, we talked baseball. I asked him if he still follows the game, and said not as much as people might think. He lives in Ohio, so he follows the Cincinnati Reds, and says he gets a lot of baseball questions, so he keeps track of the younger players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and others. I also asked him about two specific players—Tony Gwynn and Clemente.
Oliver told stories about both. Most having the same theme that they were as advertised—great men as well as great ball players. Gwynn just passed away last week, and it seemed to me that Al Oliver was Tony Gwynn before Tony Gwynn was Tony Gwynn. Oliver said he had recently read an article comparing Gwynn's game to Oliver's, and was proud of that reference.
As for Clemente and the 1971 Pirates, Oliver said that a lot of people forget about that team. Mazeroski was on that club. So were pitchers Doc Ellis, Bruce Kison, and Steve Blass. Stargell was there, and so were other 1979 champions Manny Sanguillen and Rennie Stennett. Oliver said it best . “People remember 1960 because of Mazeroski and the home run, and they remember 1979 because of the song. In '71, we were family already, we just didn't have the song.” Too bad the Pointer Sisters didn't come along eight years earlier.
It's not just baseball, it's just fun: The Gold Sox split the two games on their road trip last week, but many of the highlights were off the field. In the on-field highlight reel, the first game was a 10-0 win over the Humboldt Crabs and featured a grand slam. Humboldt won the next night 5-1, and had a first-inning home run by Manny Ramirez, Jr. (yep, that Manny Ramirez' kid)...When the Gold Sox checked into their hotel Tuesday, a few had to wait for the rooms to be ready, and while sitting in the lobby, in walked some folks with an eight-week old Bengal tiger kitten...Wednesday afternoon featured a team lunch and a trip to the beach. Several players are not from California and hadn't seen the Pacific Ocean before. We went up to a little town called Trinidad, which looks like a European fishing village. A giant cove with lots of boats on one side, and open ocean on the other. We weren't there an hour, but still had plenty of time to soak it in.