Calling Dock Ellis: the Pirates Need You!
Although three weeks have passed since Cincinnati Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman plunked the Pirates’ National League batting leader Andrew McCutchen with a 102- mile per hour fastball, no one in Pittsburgh has forgotten about it.
Since August 3, the wheels have fallen off the Pirates’ season. The team has gone 7-13, McCutchen has dropped 20 points to .350, starting pitching has withered, play in the field isn’t worthy of the Little League World Series and the base running is embarrassing. The players acquired at the trade deadline, most specifically Wandy Rodriquez, are a bust. Last night, the Pirates hit bottom when the San Diego Padres swept the series behind the left handed slants of undrafted, former Frontier League pitcher Andrew Werner who made his major league debut.
The thinking around Pittsburgh is that when the Pirates didn’t seek immediate retribution against the Reds Saturday or Sunday, the air went out of the team’s balloon. If only the Pirates had someone with Dock Ellis’ headhunting instincts, fans lament, the Reds would have paid the price and the Buccos would march on to glory. Instead of being 8.5 games behind the Reds, the Pirates would be battling it out for first place and not struggling to stay in the wild card race.
Around Pittsburgh, Ellis is famous and infamous. On June 20, 1970 Ellis, stoned on LSD, pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. As Ellis recalled it, during the game he thought Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire and Jimi Hendrix, one of the batters he faced. Later in his career, Ellis told a reporter that the scariest thing he ever did was pitch sober.
But the following year, Ellis was part of triumphant baseball history. On September 1 against the Philadelphia Phillies, Ellis was one of nine on baseball’s first all-black line up. Here’s the batting order Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh penciled in for that night: Rennie Stennett, 2B; Gene Clines, CF; Roberto Clemente, RF; Willie Stargell, LF; Manny Sanguillen, C; Dave Cash, 3B; Al Oliver 1B and Jackie Hernandez, SS. Ellis was knocked out in the second but the Pirates prevailed, 10-8.
Sometimes, Ellis’ stunts were laugh out loud funny. Before a 1973 game, Ellis took the field for drills with pink curlers in his hair. When word reached Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner wrote to Ellis ordering him never to appear on a baseball field with curlers again. In a typical Ellis reaction, Dock declared: ” They didn’t put any orders about Joe Pepitone when he wore a hairpiece down to his shoulders.”
To the point at hand—having your teammates back during times of crisis—no one topped Ellis. In 2006, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Bob Smizik spoke with Ellis to get the background on the May 1, 1974 game against the same Cincinnati Reds. Ellis, claiming that he was sick of the Reds’ trash talking the Pirates vowed to hit every batter who stepped to the plate. Ellis, making good on his promise, hit Pete Rose in the side, Joe Morgan in the kidneys and Dan Driessen in the back to load the bases with no one out.
Clean up hitter Tony Perez, getting the picture, ran away from the plate. Ellis threw over Perez’s head, behind him and in front of him but, the pitcher said, that try as he might: “There was no way I could hit him.”
Murtaugh, not privy to Ellis’ plot, flew out of the dugout to give Dock the hook. In the modern era, only Ellis has hit three batters in the first inning without recording an out .
That day, the Pirates lost 5-3 and continued to play indifferently until the season’s last week when it inched ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals to win the division by 1.5 games. In the playoffs, however, the Dodgers bested the Pirates, 3-1.
From the 1974 Ellis-Reds incident, concluding that retribution pays off in pennants would be a stretch. And the point is academic anyway since in 2012 the umpires would be right on Ellis’ case.
Nevertheless, since the Chapman incident McCutchen isn’t the same player and the Pirates, not the same team. Back in early August, McCutchen was a MVP lock and the Pirates a cinch playoff qualifier. As of today, the San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey is the MVP frontrunner and the Pirates are out of the running.
We’ll know more on September 10th when the Pirates return to Cincinnati.
Joe Guzzardi lives in Pittsburgh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.