December 13, 2013
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Monday, February 25, 2013
Kent Tekulve was easily the skinniest player I’ve ever seen play in a major league game. He was listed at 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, but in reality, he could not have weighed an ounce over 165 pounds, perhaps even 160 pounds. He looked like a scarecrow on the mound. Taken a step further, I’d be tempted to say he looked almost skeletal out there.
With a pronounced Adam’s apple and large wire-frame glasses, Tekulve hardly intimidated in the way of other great relievers of his era, like a Goose Gossage, an Al Hrabosky, or a bearded Bruce Sutter. That Tekulve even made the major leagues was a testament to his perseverance. Signed as a lowly regarded amateur free agent in 1969, he did not make his big league debut until the 1974 season, when he had already turned 27.
Without an overpowering fastball, Tekulve relied on sink, deception, and one of the funkiest deliveries in history. Long before Chad Bradford made the major league scene, Tekulve used a submarining motion in which his right elbow came within a few inches of touching the dirt on the pitcher’s mound.
With excellent sinking action on his fastball, plenty of sideward movement on his slider, and a slow curveball that he used as a change-up, Tekulve became one of the great relief aces of the late 1970s and early 80s.
Emerging as the Pirates’ primary closer in 1978, Tekulve saved 31 games. He matched that total the next season, coinciding with Pittsburgh’s second world championship of the decade. He also recorded the final out of the 1979 World Series to seal the title for the “We Are Family” Bucs.
Tekulve’s pitching fell off somewhat in 1980, as his ERA rose to 3.39. In the strike-shortened season of 1981, he lost the closer’s role to a bullpen committee headed by Enrique Romo and Rod Scurry. Even though Tekulve forged the best ERA of any Pirates reliever, he had to settle for only three saves.
To his credit, Tekulve regained the role of relief ace in 1982 and ‘83 before eventually being traded to the Phillies for hard-throwing left-hander Al Holland.
Exceedingly durable, Tekulve pitched 90 or more games three times in his career. With his underarming motion, he practically never had a sore arm. He lasted through the 1989 season, pitching for the Reds at the age of 42 and more than making up for the late start to his big league career.
Now that we’ve established his credentials, let’s tackle this week’s mystery. Tekulve’s 1981 Topps card shows him pitching in an afternoon game against the Mets at Shea Stadium. The baserunner appears to be Ron Hodges, the Mets’ longtime backup catcher, who is leading off second base.
What assumptions can we make? This is probably a game from the 1980 season, though it is possible that it could be from a 1979 game. The situation is likely in the late innings, when Tekulve pitched the vast majority of his innings.
So can we pin down this situation to a specific game, and a specific inning? Let’s go.
40,000 days ago was a landmark day in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise. It was Aug. 22, 1903, and on the face of it, there was nothing too special about that day. It was a nice day, as they swept a doubleheaders against the state rival Phillies to increase their lead in the NL pennant race to six games.
But that doubleheader sweep did something else for the club. Those wins gave the team a cumulative franchise record of 1,409 wins and 1,409 losses, right at .500. They’d been under .500 for essentially their entire franchise existence but had finally fought their way out of the hole.
Pittsburgh began in 1882 in the American Association, which was a major league back then. After a .500 first season, the team fell apart in 1883, finishing 31-67. (Yeah, seasons weren’t as long back then). They remained a bad team for a decade, and the franchise record bottomed out on Aug. 6, 1892 at 207 games under .500 (491-697).
But bottoming out is another way of saying they began improving. That they did, though initially only a little bit, playing just over .500 over the next half-dozen years. Still, at the turn of the century they’d put together a great team, anchored by Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke.
In 1901, they won their first pennant, then they repeated in 1902 and were cruising to a third in 1903. Though they were 141 games under .500 when 1901 began, they overcame that deficit with two months left to play in 1903.
I doubt anyone recognized it when the doubleheader ended 40,000 days ago, but the Pirates' entire legacy was now at the break-even point. As it happened, they stayed there for a bit. The next day, the Pirates didn’t play, and the game after that was a tie. But on Aug. 25, they swept another doubleheader from the Phillies. Pittsburgh didn’t lose another game for two weeks, essentially wrapping up the pennant race.
That run also ensured they wouldn’t fall under .500 any time soon. In fact, 40,000 days later, the franchise record is still over .500. While the Pirates have been brutally bad in recent years, they’re still 104 games over .500 (9,961-9,857). They spent much of the last 100 years about 500 games over .500, though. The Pirates were 200 games over .500 at the end of 2008 and 300 over when 2004 ended. At this pace, they’ll be back under come 2016. But of course, they could fix themselves.
Regardless, no one knows what the future holds, but we do know what happened in the past, and 40,000 days ago the Pirates hit .500.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary.” Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.
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