PDT Sports Editor
With win No. 81, the Pittsburgh Pirates ended their 20-year reign of suffering losing seasons. One Portsmouth native, Al Oliver, is not surprised but he is still elated the streak is over.
“I predicted it at the beginning of the season,” Oliver said.
Oliver played in the Major Leagues for 18 seasons. He suited up for the Pirates, Texas Rangers, Montreal Expos, San Franscio Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays over his career. Oliver has a career .303 batting average with seven all-star appearances and one World Series ring in 1971 when he was a member of the Pirates. Oliver also won the batting title in 1982 and has won the Sliver Slugger Award three times.
“I was hoping and felt strongly this would be the year.” Oliver said. “They (Pittsburgh) had to get it done this year and they got it done.”
The former Portsmouth Trojan had another reason to predict the streak would end. Oliver played for Pittsburgh on the 1971 World Championship team. No. 21, Roberto Clemente, also played on that team and was one of Oliver’s closest friends.
“We didn’t want No. 21 to be tarnished,” Oliver said. “This had to be the year. We didn’t want anything negative with that number.”
Clemente was a philanthropist, which lead to his death in 1972. Clemente was taking aid and supplies to the victims of Nicaragua after an earthquake when his plane crashed.
“It was a sad day,” Oliver said. “That hurt me more than anything in my life.”
According to Oliver, the fan support has been unbelievable for a team that has a 19 year win-less drought.
“The fans have stuck by the Pirates,” Oliver said. “This is the first year I haven’t gone in quite sometime but when I have gone, they had some great crowds.”
Asked about the current pennant race between the Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, Oliver said he isn’t giving another prediction.
“It’s a toss up between the three teams,” Oliver said. “Anyone of those three teams could win. That’s how close it is. It’ll be a great pennant race. If any one of those teams get on a hot streak, then they could pull away. But I don’t see that happening.”
As of Sept. 4, the Pirates have a two game lead on the Cardinals, and a three and a half game lead on the Reds.
Although he’s not sure if Pittsburgh could reach the World Series, Oliver knows the Pirates would be the favorite if they reached the finals.
“Don’t let them get into a World Series,” Oliver said. “Once they get in, they have all the history of winning it. Baseball is so unpredictable, sometimes the best team doesn’t always win.”
Oliver is torn by the possibility of a postseason game involving the Pirates and the Reds.
“Dusty Baker (Reds manager) and I are good buddies and then we have the Pirates,” Oliver said. “If they play each other I might have to turn off the TV. Naturally, I’d like to see Pittsburgh win and if they don’t, then I’d like to see the Reds win.”
Oliver has a message for the Reds skipper.
“I wish Dusty well but my heart is still in Pittsburgh,” Oliver said.
Even with a World Series victory in October, Oliver didn’t find a comparison between this year’s Pirates squad and those from the 70s.
“I couldn’t compare them to our ‘71 team or the ‘79 team, even though I wasn’t there at that time,” Oliver said. “They remind me of a team that all of the sudden has gained confidence and now they believe they can win. But talent wise, they don’t remind me of the teams in the ’70s. Two years from now it might be a different story. They do have a lot of young players that can turn into stars.”
Chris Slone can be reached at 353-3101, ext 298 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking sports news, follow Chris on Twitter @crslone.