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Andy Van Slyke

February 17, 2009

andy-van-slyke-90

When this Andy Van Slyke card came out in 1990, Pirates fans must have thought they’d been having a hard go of it for a long, long time. It had been eleven years since the ’79 championship team had climaxed a decade of exciting, winning baseball in Pittsburgh, eleven years in a desert of playoff-bereft seasons that ranged from falsely promising to abjectly awful. Since bottoming out with a 54-107 record in 1985, the team had seemed to have been on a gradual upward climb under new manager Jim Leyland, edging from awful to mediocre in 1987 with the arrival of Andy Van Slyke, and climbing from mediocre to pretty good in 1988 with Andy Van Slyke turning in his finest season, which got him an invite to the All-Star game, a fourth-place finish in the National League MVP voting, and the first of five consecutive Gold Glove awards. But then in 1989, the year chronicled on the back of this card, both team and star player stumbled backward. Van Slyke hit just .237 with 9 home runs, and the team managed just 74 wins.

This Andy Van Slyke card recently came into my mostly ossified collection as part of a Christmas present pack of random cards from my wife’s aunt. I may have looked at it for a few moments when I first discovered it among the Ernie Camachos and Todd Hollandsworths, but I didn’t really start studying it until last night, when it began to dawn on me that I have been neglecting the Pittsburgh Pirates.

***

The recent move of this site from its old location on the now-unplugged Baseball Toaster has made it necessary for me to sift through and categorize all my posts by team and player. In doing so, I realized that I haven’t featured a Pirates player in almost a year, since Richie Hebner and Bob Moose accompanied me on my tour of the underworld.

This was a surprising discovery, since I consider the Pirates to be not just one of the best teams from my childhood but among the richest in character and characters. If you say Pittsburgh Pirates to me I think of a raucous party, Sister Sledge blaring, free-swinging sluggers Al-Olivering line-drive doubles into the gap and speedsters Omar-Morenoing around third and sliding into home safely in a cloud of glittering, vaguely illicit dust, the giddy treble of the disco in the Pirates’ fearsome game supported by the rock-solid morally upright thumping bass of slugging elder statesman Roberto Clemente on one end of the decade and slugging elder statesman Willie Stargell on the other.

In short, I like the Pirates. And not for nothing, but I have been to more than a few major league baseball stadiums and as far as I have seen the only one that incorporates baseball cards into the very structure of their building is the Pirates’ current stadium, which as I recall has baseball cards of former Pirates embedded into the surfaces of walls and/or pillars out in the concourse behind the left-field bleachers.

There may also be other locations of this feature in this park, but the one time I was there I sat beyond the leftfield wall. I had one of the best times I ever had at a game, even though, or maybe partially because, just before the game started an announcement was made that Ted Williams had died. What better place to be than a ballgame when hearing that Teddy Ballgame is no more? We sat in the bleachers to the left of a guy that I have come to think of as The World’s Most Enthusiastic Baseball Fan, a young happy thick-necked drunk who got everyone in the seats surrounding him feeling as if we were all part of one big happy family. (His mom was there, in fact, sitting on the opposite side of us from the guy and passing us beers from the vendor to him while explaining “He’s always been like this.”)

The Pirates fell behind and were seeming every bit the moribund collective their record from that year suggests they were, but then The World’s Most Enthusiastic Baseball Fan really got rolling, starting a wave, starting “we need a hit” chants, and starting, somehow most significantly, a “Pirate Parrot” chant. Over and over he chanted for the Pirates’ mascot until the big-beaked figure finally appeared before him, before all of us, mascot and Superfan embracing to great cheers all around that seemed, somehow, to electrify the heretofore deadened Pirates, who immediately pieced together a game-tying three-run rally and later, in the midst of another round of cheers led by The World’s Most Enthusiastic Baseball fan, went ahead for good on an Aramis Ramirez home run that crashed down in our section like lightning sent from a powerful, responsive god.

So considering all that, I really think I should rectify my nearly year-long neglect and send a prayer the Pirates’ way, and this 1990 Andy Van Slyke seems as good a place as any to start.

***

Andy Van Slyke looks in this 1990 card like someone in an ostensibly rehabilitative yet permanent residential facility. I expect that in the next moment white-clad employees will approach him, gently remove the bat from his loose grip, and coax him back to his room where he can more safely entertain his daze-eyed fantasies of baseball glory.

The funny thing is, Van Slyke was on the brink of the winningest period of his entire career, even considering his early years with Whitey Herzog’s slashing and burning St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates were an elite team for 1990, 1991, and 1992, winning their division each year. In that light the 1990 Van Slyke card must have come to resemble a symbol of triumph, at least during the peak of the Pirates’ early ’90s golden age and its immediate aftermath.

But now it’s 2009, and the Pirates have not only failed to return to the playoffs, they have not even finished with a winning record. Not once. Van Slyke, as he recedes in memory, has become the titular saint of an excellent Pirates blog dedicated, out of necessity, to detailing the Pirates’ ongoing ineptitude. One of the more interesting, if painful, features at Whatever Happened to Andy Van Slyke is a blow-by-blow dissection of each of the failed seasons since the Pirates last tasted winning (there are two archives for these recaps: ’93-’99 and 2000-present). The wrap-up of the 2002 team that I cheered to victory alongside The World’s Most Enthusiastic Baseball Fan is emblematic of the wrenchingly humorous recaps, that year defined before it even started by fading Derek Bell’s decision to respond to what he deemed an unsatisfactory contract offer by getting on his houseboat and sailing away from baseball forever. He didn’t sail away from his guaranteed contract, however, prompting one pundit to note “Derek Bell [has become] the ultimate Pirate: [He] lives on a boat and steals money.” 

In light of what must sometimes seem to be an endless parade of lackluster years, the 1990 card of Andy Van Slyke might be in the midst of a further transformation. He loosely holds his bat in a dreamscape far removed from the present. There are two answers to the question that asks where Andy Van Slyke has gone. One answer is that he is elsewhere, a coach, a guy getting older. The other answer is that he is one of the gods, and gods pass our way once and don’t ever come back.

14 comments

  1. *”… and the gods pass our way once and don’t ever come back.”*

    Andy Van Slyke
    Richie Hebner
    Steve Howe – C’mon back buddy, c’mon back.


  2. Those early 90’s Pirates were a great ball club with Van Slyke, Bonds, Bonilla, Drabeck. They would regularly kick the shit out of the Dodgers back when they were both in the National League Western Division. They gave me my most memorable game attended when I was about 12 or something like that. Kevin Gross pitched for the Dodgers that night, beaned a couple of Pirates, and then during the ensuing bench clearing brawl, traded punches with Jim Leyland. I was blown away.


  3. “What better place to be than a ballgame when hearing that Teddy Ballgame is no more?”

    When I heard the news, I decided I had to be at Fenway that night. Called my parents, and they both felt the same way, so I bought some tickets and we all went up. In retrospect, it may have been better to wait till they had the planned ceremony. That night they just had a guy playing Taps in left field, a 9 mowed into the grass, a little video, and Ted’s number and stats in the “now batting” scoreboards.

    I have also always had Pirate-sympathy, and liked Van Slyke a lot–though I’m still mad at him for robbing my then-fave Mike Greenwell of what would’ve been his first All-Star Game hit. (Actually, I never thought to look this up until now, but it turns out he never got that hit. Van Slyked!)


  4. baddude22:
    “Kevin Gross pitched for the Dodgers that night, beaned a couple of Pirates, and then during the ensuing bench clearing brawl, traded punches with Jim Leyland.”

    Sounds like some game. I’m sure Leyland’s willingness to dive right into the fray must have (further) impressed his players. I wonder if Leyland will make it to the Hall as a manager.

    By the way, the Pirates were an NL East team (not an NL West team) before moving to the Central. (You might be thinking of the Braves, who were an NL West squad before the switch to three divisions.)

    gedmaniac:
    “Van Slyked” is a great verb for getting robbed by a great catch. Did you just come up with that?


  5. It’s hard to imagine Tim Wakefield anywhere else, but he was a pretty good member of that 1992 Pirates squad. And #3 in RoY balloting.


  6. Maybe some day Van Slyke will be accused of using steroids and then Greenwell will petition to have that all star hit added to his record.


  7. Several thoughts popped into my head as I read this post:

    *I remember a young Doc Gooden mowing down that 1985 Pirates Team. Even more impressive than his fastball was his jaw dropping curve ball.

    *Al Oliver was an unbelievable hitter.

    *I was only in Pittsburgh twice ever (to visit friends). Both visits were in 1990, when they were still playing in Three Rivers, and both times they were on a west coast road trip. Our friends then moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan.

    *Those Pirate teams of 1990-1992 were among the best to have never made it to a World Series.

    *The citizens of Pittsburgh got duped into paying for a new stadium (which looks great) with the promise that the payroll would be higher with the increased revenue brought in by the new stadium. They are still waiting.


  8. piehead:
    Greenwell’s lobbying to have the steroidals’ achievements downgraded may have indirectly helped lead to this recent bit of Onion genius:

    Turns Out Craig Counsell Was Actually Best Player of Steroid Era

    thunderfan24:
    “Al Oliver was an unbelievable hitter.”

    Funny, he was somewhat underrated and overlooked when he played, and then right around the time when he might have gotten his belated due as the kind of several-years-retired guy that backward-gazing fans love to rescue from obscurity, the “Moneyball” style of analysis probably prevented that from ever happening. I mean, without looking, I think Oliver was a guy whose batting average and “counting” stats (hits, RBI) look good but whose on-base-percentage numbers are not stellar. I think he was the quintessential free-swinging 1970s Pirate in that regard.


  9. I haven’t looked it up, but I remember Manny Sanguillen as being the final word in “free-swingers.”


  10. sb1902:
    Sanguillen immediately came to mind as I was writing “free-swinging 1970s Pirate.” And you’re right, according to my (always suspect) math, Sanguillen walked just once every 24 plate appearances over the course of his career, while Al Oliver was by comparison a regular Eddie Yost, walking once every 18 plate appearances throughout his career. (Sanguillen also qualified as a free-swinger by virtue of the fact that he was an ex-boxer who loved to engage in fisticuffs; I think I read about that in Dock Ellis’s book, anyway.)

    But the biggest testament to the Pirates’ strategy of flailing away at anything anywhere near the plate was perhaps in the fact that the first two batters in the ’79 champions’ lineup, Omar Moreno and Tim Foli, combined for just 79 walks between them that year. (And that was a particularly patient year for both of them.) Way to set the table, guys!


  11. Josh, you are right about the Pirates being in the Eastern Division! Ah, I think all the years of Atlanta and Cincinnati being on the west coast confused me. But yes, that fight was quite impressive! My friends and I always admired Leyland because he would smoke cigs in the dugout. Stupid impressionable kids….

    Anyway, here is a quote from after the game from Kevin Gross.
    “Maybe it was out of frustration,” Gross said. “Maybe it’s because he hates me. I don’t know. I wasn’t about to throw a punch at anybody unless I had to. I’m out there trying to win a game. But it’s a good thing he didn’t take a swing at me. I would have had to hurt him.”


  12. ““Van Slyked” is a great verb for getting robbed by a great catch. Did you just come up with that?”

    Yes. Let’s hope it catches on:)

    “Maybe some day Van Slyke will be accused of using steroids and then Greenwell will petition to have that all star hit added to his record.”

    I almost mentioned something like this in my original comment, ha.


  13. I think Van Slyke was voiciferously (sp) anti-steroid. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s clean.


  14. I’ve been on the sports radio station in St. Louis that Van Slyke worked at and I heard him a few times rant about his hatred of all things steroids. I don’t gather Andy is a big Bonds fan.

    The Pirates new ballpark is one of the best. The view of the city is fabulous and they sell at the park those great Primanti sandwiches. Little known fact is that Will Carroll has a some kind of replica wallpaper covering one wall of his office which is a panorama view of PNC. As you might guess, Will has a great wife.



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