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.