Game stirs memories

We’ve reached the end of July, which means we are headed right into the height of the reunion season.

And there certainly are all kinds of reunions to celebrate — class reunions, all-school reunions, family reunions and block parties that have been expanded into reunions that attract people from all parts of the country and even from oveseas.

While this personally is an off-year for reunions (my last high school reunion — 40 years — came three years ago), I did have the chance to sit in on a reunion July 20 that really struck a chord.

It was another 40th anniversary celebration, this one viewed from the stands at PNC Park, one that marked the exploits of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. It was a special team, the “We Are Family” team that rode the Sister Sledge tune to the World Series championship. A team whose members earned Stargell Stars to wear on their throwback pillbox hats. And it happened before a game against a familiar foe from that period, the Philadelphia Phillies.

Baseball’s divisional setup was different then, and the Pirates and Phillies both played in the National League East. There were some memorable meetings between the two during that era, with the Pirates winning 10 of the 18 games they played in 1979. While a Pirates fan, I can remember feeling torn while watching some of those games that were played that year on the artificial turf at Three Rivers Stadium — while a win by the Bucs was always most important, I also wanted to see Mike Schmidt do well.

Schmidt, baseball fans remember, played his college baseball at Ohio University and helped the Bobcats to a spot in the 1970 College World Series during his career in Athens. As a manager with the Bobcats during the late 1970s, teams that were coached by Catholic Central High School graduate Jerry France, I had the chance to hear more than one story about Schmidt and fellow OU alum Steve Swisher, who played with the Cubs at time.

But the Pirates had a special team that year, and watching the surviving members of that 1979 squad or the representatives of those who couldn’t attend or had died gather along the third base line that night really stirred a lot of memories.

As each was introduced, it was hard to believe that four decades had passed, and memories of watching Dale Berra, Tim Foli, Phil Garner, Jim Rooker, John Milner, Omar Moreno, Lee Lacy and John Candelaria playing on the field didn’t feel so distant. And then there was Mike Easler, whose nickname was “The Hitman,” earned not because of anything bad, but because he could, well, hit, man.

Seeing Kent Tekulve was a little different, too, because he was one of the few members of that team that I had the chance to meet. That opportunity came a few years ago, when he spoke during a meeting of the Steubenville Rotary Club.

As with any reunion, there were moments of sadness. One came from the notable absence of Willie Stargell. He was the team leader and was the person responsible for the countless number of yellow stars with the “P” in the middle. Stargell, just 61 when he died on April 9, 2001, had been named most valuable player in that 1979 World Series, batting .400, with three home runs, one of which — a two-run blast in the sixth-inning — turned out to be the deciding hit in a 4-1 win in Game 7, as the Pirates completed their comeback from a 3-1 deficit against Baltimore. His death came on the day the first game was played in PNC Park.

It also was troubling to see Manny Sanguillen, who was such a great catcher, struggle to stand up from a wheelchair, and to see Dave Parker, the Cobra, who had such a powerful swing and such a strong arm, slowed by the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

Like many reunions do, the evening offered a chance for reflection, as my son, Matthew, reminded me.

While I was able to remember Tekulve the pitcher, he knew only the longtime Pirates’ broadcaster. And, while I can remember Sanguillen as being such a force behind the plate, Matthew knows him for the barbecue pit he runs behind the center field fence at PNC Park.

Things change, and time passes. The Pirates have an all-time record of 5-2 in the World Series, and three of those championships –1960, 1971 and 1979 — have been won in my lifetime. When the next one comes, a new generation of fans will have a new set of memories, built around a whole new set of players, sights and sounds.

Just like the memories that come to mind every time “We Are Family” plays on the radio.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)