The Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place today. Though they spent a few days in first place in 1997, they haven’t really been a first place team—or even finished a season above .500—since 1992, Mike LaValliere’s last full season with the team. He had come to Pittsburgh in 1987 along with Andy Van Slyke in return for Tony Pena. LaValliere won a Gold Glove his first season in Pittsburgh and anchored the Bucs’ defense through three straight division titles from 1990 through 1992. After that last season, the team’s superstar, Barry Bonds, left for San Francisco, and the franchise fell into one of the most dismal droughts in baseball history: eighteen years of unrelenting losing.
It makes for a good, clear story to say that the Pirates were never the same after losing Bonds, one of the greatest athletes to ever play the sport. What couldn’t he do? He stole bases, smashed home runs, gazelled across the outfield to chase down would-be doubles and triples in the outfield. Mike LaValliere, who was released by the team in early April of 1993, was something of a polar opposite to the blazing, explosive Bonds. LaValliere was short and tubby and slow and couldn’t hit for power. But he’s probably the kind of guy you don’t miss until he’s gone. He wasn’t a total black hole on offense. He was a good contact hitter, drew some walks. In a couple of seasons he even hit .300. For what it’s worth, he could lay down a bunt. Mostly though, he could catch. I am not sure what the stats say about the overall worth of having a catcher who can field his position and shut down the opposition’s running game, but as a fan I know that having a catcher who is bumbling and fumbling around behind the plate seems to doom the team, the ineptitude at the center of the action casting a pall of ineptitude over everything.
Speaking of disintegrating situations, the air conditioning in my home is broken, and it’s hot and getting hotter. I can’t write much lately anyway, but the heat is reducing me to barely literate. So how about we end this lackluster congrats to the first-place Pirates with the thought that Mike LaValliere was for the Pirates in their last winning era like the air-conditioning unit in your home. It chugs along quietly and effectively most of the time, allowing you to focus on all sorts of other lofty endeavors, but then when it’s gone, you’re screwed.