Mehno: Huntington has restored Pirates’ health

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Pirates were fresh from losing 104 games and drawing 735,900 fans when Syd Thrift took over as general manager in November, 1985.

Three years later, Thrift was fired because not only did he clash with his superiors, he wouldn’t even acknowledge he had superiors.

In typical fashion, his parting shot was an advertisement for himself. “It ain’t easy resurrecting the dead,” he said on the way out the door.

Thrift was fired after an 85-win season, the Bucs’ first step toward the three division titles from 1990-92. His successor, Larry Doughty, made some necessary additions (notably Jay Bell and Zane Smith), but Thrift created the base. He did that mostly by acquiring players who had been undervalued by their organizations.

In St. Louis, Whitey Herzog had made a rare miscalculation, deciding that Andy Van Slyke couldn’t play full-time and that he wasn’t suited for center field. The New York Yankees saw Doug Drabek as erratic, and preferred Rick Rhoden’s veteran presence. The Chicago White Sox jumped at the chance to trade inexperienced Bobby Bonilla for power arm Jose DeLeon.

This year’s Pirates’ resurgence may not be a matter of resurrecting the dead, but it qualifies as waking a franchise from a deep slumber.

The starting rotation and back of the bullpen that have carried the Pirates were acquired by GM Neal Huntington in a climate where teams are reluctant to part with quality pitching.

It took Huntington longer to turn things around (he was hired six years ago this month), but it’s also a different MLB landscape. The gap between the top and bottom payrolls was $13 million in 1988; the difference was $142 million last season.

When the Pirates traded their best player, Tony Pena, in 1987, he was making $1.225 million. Rhoden was paid $620,000 in his last Pirates season. Jeff King, the overall No. 1 pick in the 1986 draft, had to hold out for a $180,000 singing bonus; Gerrit Cole got an $8 million bonus as the top pick in the 2011 draft.

Unlike Thrift, Huntington has no interest in self-promotion, and he won’t ever push his way into the spotlight.

But like Thrift, he’s taken a wounded organization and restored it to health.

Countdown to kickoff

The Steelers season that opens today doesn’t have the usual level of anticipation.

That’s probably because the team was 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs. It’s also probably because that seems like a reasonable forecast for this season as well. This has the look of winding up somewhere in the range of 9-7 to 7-9.

Family feud

The soundtrack for the 1979 Pirates championship run was Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” a bouncy number that promoted harmony well enough to overcome the gender-specific lyrics.

Turns out Kathy Sledge left the act some time ago and performs on her own. Now she’s in court with her sisters, fighting over the right to use the “Sister Sledge” trademark.

So perhaps they sing: “We were fam-a-lee, Now I’ve got these lawyers with me…”

Mehno can be reached at