April 28, 1979: A Rainout and a Look at Where the Infield Came From

The Pirates’ game with Houston was rained out.  It’ll be made up in July.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at how some of the team’s players got there.  Today we’ll look at the catchers and infielders.


Steve Nicosia:  The Pirates drafted Nicosia in 1973 out of a Florida high school, 24th overall.  Scouted by the legendary Howie Haak, Nicosia was the first catcher the Pirates ever drafted in the first round.  He went straight to full-season ball, at Charleston in the Western Carolinas League, right after he was drafted.  The Pirates moved Nicosia up a level at a time.  He had a big year in the Carolina League, batting 304/359/496, but found the upper levels a little tougher.  He also missed most of 1977 due to knee surgery and ended up spending 1976-78 in AAA.  After a big 1978 season (.922 OPS), the Pirates made him Ed Ott’s platoon mate for 1979.

Ed Ott:  Ott was a 23rd round pick out of high school in Muncy, PA, in 1970.  A HS third baseman, Ott spent his first four pro seasons as an outfielder.  When the Pirates suggested a move behind the plate, he reportedly agreed for three reasons:  Al Oliver, Richie Zisk and Dave Parker.  Ott hit well in the low minors, putting up an OPS over .800 in his first two full seasons.  He skipped AA and found AAA tougher at first.  He ended up spending three seasons there, making brief appearances with the Bucs in 1974-75.  In 1976, he made the team as the third string catcher and batted .308 in limited time.  He became the regular in 1977 after the Pirates traded Manny Sanguillen to Oakland for manager Chuck Tanner.

Manny Sanguillen:  The Pirates signed Sangy in 1964 out of Panama, a productive pipeline that also produced Rennie Stennett and Omar Moreno.  All three were scouted by Herb Raybourne, who also discovered Mariano Rivera.  According to his SABR bio, the Pirates were close to losing Sangy to the Astros, but they sent Howie Haak to Panama and Haak was quickly sold.  A .328 season in class A in 1966 got him promoted to AAA and he made his Pirates’ debut in 1967 when Jerry May broke a finger.  A broken finger of his own kept Sangy from making the team in 1968, but he beat May out for the starting job in 1969.  Sangy batted over .300 in his first three seasons and threw out over 40% of base stealers in his first four.  He spent eight seasons establishing himself as one of the greatest catchers in team history, before the strange trade that sent him to Oakland.  He returned in a minor trade after just one year, but his knees were pretty much shot by then.


Dale Berra:  The Pirates drafted Yogi’s son in the first round, 20th overall, in 1975 out of a New Jersey high school.  He quickly established himself as a top prospect, putting up an .843 OPS in AAA in 1977 at age 20, after skipping over two levels.  That got him an August callup when Rennie Stennett broke his leg.  With Frank Taveras still established at short in Pittsburgh, Berra spent about two-thirds of 1978 in AAA, still hitting very well.  He opened 1979 with the Pirates.

Tim Foli:  We’ve already chronicled Foli’s move to the Pirates in exchange for Taveras.  The Mets drafted Foli first overall out of a California high school in 1968.  Foli played well in the minors and reached New York at age 19 in 1970.  A tumultuous 1971 season, involving fights with a teammate and a coach, followed, and the exasperated Mets traded Foli to Montreal at the start of 1972.  Foli spent six years with the Expos, mostly as the starter at short, hitting poorly but playing good defense.  In early 1977, Montreal traded Foli to the Giants for Chris Speier, who wanted out of San Francisco.  He had a very rough year in the Bay and, after the season, the Mets bought his contract from the Giants.  After just over a year back with New York, Foli ended up in Pittsburgh.

Phil Garner:  Oakland drafted Garner third overall in the secondary phase of the 1971 draft out of the University of Tennessee.  A third baseman at the time, Garner moved up quickly, reaching AAA in the middle of his second season.  With Sal Bando in Oakland, Garner spent the next two seasons in AAA, posting an OPS of .837 in 1973 and .951 in 1974.  In 1975, the A’s moved Scrap Iron to second and he played 160 games for them.  He had a better season in 1976, improving his OPS+ from 83 to 111.  After the season, the Pirates acquired him, along with two inconsequential players, for a huge package of Tony Armas, Doug Bair, Dave Giusti, Doc Medich, Rick Langford and Mitchell Page.

Willie Stargell:  Pops’ story is pretty well known in these parts, so just the basic origins.  The Pirates signed him out of a California high school in 1958, seven years before there was a draft.  Stargell did OK his first two years in pro ball, playing in class D (on a team based partly in Roswell, NM) and class C.  In 1961 he launched 22 ‘taters, then the next year in AAA he hit 27, which got him a brief major league debut.  In 1963 he came up to stay, and the rest is history.

Rennie Stennett:  The Pirates signed Stennett out of the Panama Canal Zone in 1969, thanks to the afore-mentioned Herb Raybourne.  Stennett could always hit.  His worst year in the minors was his first one, when he hit .288 in full season ball at age 18.  The next two years, 1970-71, he hit .327 and .344.  He got a callup in July because Dave Cash and Richie Hebner had military requirements, and stayed because Jose Pagan suffered a broken arm.  In 50 games in the bigs, he hit .353.  Between Stennett, Cash and another prospect, Willie Randolph, the Pirates were loaded at second, but Stennett was ultimately the guy they chose to keep.  It looked like a great decision by late in the 1977 season, when Stennett was batting .336 and showing great range in the field.  On a slide into second, though, he broke his fibula and dislocated his ankle.  After a rough 1978 season, he was still the Bucs’ second baseman going into 1979.