People mock the Pirates these days – certainly no difficult task – but to anyone old enough to pay attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Pirates are not so much an unending disgrace as merely a slumping empire in continued recession.
And sure there were the “We Are Family” glory days or even the Depression-era juggernaut, but as far as most of us remember the Pirates were really a mighty three-headed cabal of outstanding bats: Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla.
We all remember how Bonds turned out to be too much of a racist jerk for anyone to look back on fondly, and Van Slyke seems to have problems of his own with how our fair franchise does business. But with Bobby Bo, everyone knew exactly where things stood: he was a bat for hire, and a good one at that, and if you had him on board your team usually won. A lot. Forty-six playoff games in his sixteen seasons, although most people would rather forget the .215/.320/.349 postseason line he finished with. . . or the tantrums and pouting about playing time and money. . . or the lame feuds with sportswriters. A repeated winner who actually lost when it counted; now we see who taught Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez those lessons in early-season fireworks.
But what most people don’t know is that, for 75 games in 1986, Bobby Bo was also one of our own.
Originally picked up in the 1985 Rule 5 Draft from the Pirates, Bonilla made his major league debut April 9, 1986 as a pinch-hitter for catcher Joel Skinner (yes, that Joel Skinner) and grounded out to Brewers 2B Jim Ganter. Although the rest of his season went considerably better (.269/.361/.355 in 75 games with two homers and 26 driven in), teammates allegedly picked on Bonilla too much for his own liking, and the Sox sent the young outfielder back to Pittsburgh in exchange for right-hander Jose DeLeon. DeLeon, fresh off a 2-19 1985 campaign, had seen his numbers spike in the wrong direction each year: 1983’s 2.83 ERA became 1985’s 4.70, while his K/BB went from 2.51 to 1.67.
Bonilla went on to flourish, at one point becoming the highest-paid player in baseball (five years and $29 million with the Mets in 1992 was unheard of at the time) and winning the World Series with the 1997 Marlins.
Meanwhile DeLeon, while certainly not bad, was never really more than just okay. He put up a good second half of 1986, and in 1987 settled into his groove as a perfectly acceptable back end of the rotation. That winter, the Sox sent DeLeon to St. Louis for southpaw reliever Ricky Horton and an up-and-coming centerfield speedster named Lance Johnson.
White Sox history is rife with cult heroes and just-better-than-average players treated as heroes, and One Dog perfectly filled the gap between Ron Kittle and Ray Durham (and arguably laid the groundwork for the eventual Legend of Aaron Rowand), although Johnson actually justified the fan bias and sentimental overvaluation by not just being a remarkable player (no one leads the league in triples four years straight without doing at least something right) but also, alongside Tim Raines and Joey Cora, giving the Sox a perfect offensive counterpart to the pure hulking power of Frank Thomas, George Bell, Robin Ventura, Bo Jackson et al.
Johnson’s best season on the South Side was the same as a lot of other players’ best seasons on the South Side, hitting .311 in 1993 with 18 doubles and an AL-best 14 triples and, hliariously, almost identical numbers of walks, strikeouts and stolen bases (36, 33, 35, respectively). DeLeon, ironically, returned to the South Side that same season by way of the Philadelphia Philles for a declining Bobby Thigpen, and served as one of their few bright spots in that year’s ALCS, allowing only one earned run in 4.1 innings of relief.
So what of it? In exchange for a gamble of a eventually very-expensive bat, the Good Guys landed both a key and an accessory to a division winner, plus a local legend kind enough even to take his skills across enemy lines a few years later. Not a bad deal if you think about it, but it stands to reason no one really does. This is the Pirates we’re talking about here.