October is old news. Jim Leyland doesn’t dream about Francisco Cabrera and never really did.
The anguish that was the ninth inning of Game 7 of the National League playoffs against the Atlanta Braves was acknowledged, then forgotten.
In the spring of a new season, the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates has more to do than dwell on Cabrera and old wounds.
The specter of a nearly anonymous Atlanta catcher snatching the 1992 pennant from him has been replaced by hard reality. Gone are Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek and Jose Lind, the result of small-market economics.
It is one thing to have a Francisco Cabrera drive a stake through your heart. It is another to have to hope that rookies Al Martin, Kevin Young and Carlos Garcia can help keep the Pirates competitive in a division they have dominated.
No one is predicting that they can win the National League East title for the fourth consecutive year, but then no one was predicting they could make it three in a row last season after losing Bobby Bonilla, John Smiley and Bill Landrum.
“We have to hope that the kids keep their diapers dry in the first half, that we don’t get blown out, that we’re still alive at midseason,” Leyland said.
“We have our work cut out, but it’s not like we’re starting totally from scratch. We still have some good players, and it might not take long to get back to where we want. Are we as strong as we were? No way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t win our share of games, or we’re as bad as everybody seems to think.”
Perhaps, but rhetoric alone won’t convince all the Pirates.
“Leyland’s been able to drive a pretty big engine, but we’ve gone from a V-8 to an in-line six,” said Andy Van Slyke, who will return to center field when he recovers from knee surgery, but who is no longer flanked by Bonds and Bonilla, no longer part of baseball’s best outfield.
“When you look at the team we had two years ago--well, there’s probably not a safe statement for me to make,” he added.
“Hopefully, we can be competitive and make it exciting, but it’s hard to replace the type of talent we’ve lost. The kids have bright futures, but you don’t know how they’ll respond.
“I guess my approach is more cautious than optimistic. I mean, we’ve survived for three years while losing talent, but I don’t know if we can again.”
Jay Bell and Jeff King return to the left side of the Pittsburgh infield. Catchers Don Slaught and Mike Lavalliere will platoon again. Orlando Merced moves from first base to right field.
Otherwise, Garcia will attempt to replace Lind’s Gold Glove at second, Young debuts at first and Martin will platoon with veteran Lonnie Smith in left, replacing, so to speak, Bonds, a two-time most valuable player.
A fourth rookie, Steve Cooke, is expected to join a pitching rotation of Tim Wakefield, Bob Walk, Randy Tomlin and Zane Smith, who was on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis twice last year and is not expected to be taking regular turns until late April.
The Pirates have given up an all-star roster in the last two years through free agency, trades and releases.
Gone besides Bonds, Bonilla, Smiley, Drabek, Landrum and Lind are Danny Jackson, Steve Buechele, Gary Varsho, Cecil Espy, Gary Redus, Alex Cole, Bob Patterson, Roger Mason, Danny Cox and Victor Palacios.
Those 16 had 1992 salary guarantees of $29.9 million. The Pittsburgh payroll has been reduced by about $10 million from the $34 million of last year.
Bonilla, Bonds, Drabek and Smiley alone have signed elsewhere for multiyear guarantees totaling $111 million. Pittsburgh General Manager Ted Simmons said he simply can’t compete at those prices.
Simmons said the Pirates are not doing an overhaul of the type undertaken by the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians.
He calls it a transition and said his long-term spending is most sensibly budgeted for scouting and development, which “always puts the Pirates in position to let (expensive) marquee players go.”
“You can’t replace Barry Bonds with one or two players and you can’t replace Doug Drabek with one or two pitchers, but you can replace them with 25,” he said. “We have the best manager in baseball, and he’s confident and brave enough to say, ‘If you make my club, you’ll play.’
“I don’t know what we’ve got or where we’ll finish, but just because we’re different now doesn’t mean we’re worse. I’m not over-promising, but I feel we’re at least stable in transition, stable enough not to finish last, where a lot of people are picking us.”
Simmons re-signed the versatile Lloyd McClendon and tried to “stabilize the youth” by signing veteran free agents Smith, John Candelaria, Tim Foley and Alejandro Pena.
In Pena’s case, though, there might be no return. He underwent surgery Friday on the sore elbow that put him out of action late last season with Atlanta. He probably will miss the season.
Said Leyland: “We’ve got to get back to a position where we can sign some of our front-line players at least. We can’t continue to lose them all.
“Is it frustrating? Sure. I was particularly disappointed when we couldn’t sign Drabek, because I felt he was the one player we could, but I know what the cards are.
“We’ve been on a pretty good roll, and I have no reason to be upset with the organization. They gave me the chance and have treated me first class.
“I’m happy here. I like the young players and I hope to ride it out. Whoever thought a backup catcher (who never played in the big leagues) would get the opportunity to manage the same big league club for eight straight years?
“I mean, I have no intention of leaving. I’d like to spend my entire career with the Pirates.”
Leyland understands, however, that despite his success and the esteem in which he is held throughout the game, the manager could take the fall if this transition doesn’t work.
“I can’t worry about it,” he said. “I mean, I was the same manager in ’86 (when the Pirates lost 96 games) as I was the last three years, but I didn’t have good players. I didn’t get dumber or smarter overnight. I didn’t want to get to the World Series because it would prove I’m a great manager. I wanted to get there because that’s what you strive for from Day 1.”
The Pirates needed one more out. They had come back from a 3-1 deficit in games and were leading in the top of the ninth inning of Game 7, 2-0.
Cabrera’s two-out, two-run, pinch-single off Stan Belinda after the Braves had closed to 2-1will be remembered forever in Pittsburgh, but there was more to the inning:
--A looping double by Terry Pendleton that was inches fair and, perhaps, should have been caught by Espy.
--Only the seventh error of the year by Lind on a grounder by David Justice.
--A pitch by Belinda to Damon Berryhill that appeared to be a third strike but was called the third ball by umpire Randy Marsh. Berryhill then walked.
Leyland didn’t make an issue of any of that then and won’t now. He cried in the clubhouse, said he “mourned” with his wife Katie for two days at home, then decided “this is crazy, nuts. I’m not going to let it ruin my life or my off-season. I watched every inning of the World Series and rooted for the Braves as National League champions.
“I also received a lot of calls from well-meaning friends who wanted me to know how bad they felt, but it was as if they thought it was totally unfair,” Leyland said. “Well, there was nothing unfair about it. We needed one more out and didn’t get it, that’s all.
“We were also a team that was supposed to finish fourth but won 96 games and came within that one out of the World Series.
“Yes, it was heartbreaking, but I can’t let it ruin my enthusiasm, spirit or approach. I don’t want sympathy. I’ve been to the playoffs three straight years, reached the seventh game twice. I’ve got a great contract and a great family.
“If we all cried in the clubhouse, that’s part of the game and part of life.”
It’s a matter of perspective.
Leyland rode buses for 16 years as a minor league player and manager. He remembers that every time he walks into a major league clubhouse. He remembers, too, the fragility of life itself.
One of his best friends, Carl Barger, the former Pirate president who gave him the opportunity to manage in the majors, died of a heart attack last December. A son Katie Leyland had carried to term in 1989 was stillborn.
The Leylands are expecting their second child in midsummer, and Katie is doing well.
So is her husband, who refuses to concede that the 1992 playoff was the last shot for a team in “transition.” Some see that as the real heartbreak of Francisco Cabrera, but Leyland won’t close the door on 1993. He believes that Martin, Young and Garcia are legitimate big league players.
“How soon they’ll be ready to handle the Doc Goodens and Bret Saberhagens is another question,” he added.