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3/17: Thomas Signs; Smiley Trade; Bell Spouts; Pops Hired; KBL Deal; South of the Border; RIP Charley & Jewels; HBD Raul, Rod, John, Pete, Cito & Ralph

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  • 1894 – 2B/OF Ralph Shafer was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ralph is the Pirates version of Moonlight Graham – he got into one game on July 25th, 1914, as a pinch runner during a 4-2 loss to the NY Giants at the Polo Grounds, dying on base. Shafer apparently couldn’t make up his mind about the pro ball thing. He played five minor league seasons for five teams, with a four year hiatus between 1917-20. 
  • 1919 – OF Pete Reiser was born in St. Louis. The veteran outfielder spent one season (1951) of his 10-year MLB stint in Pittsburgh, batting .271. He spent the next campaign with the Cleveland Indians before retiring. Pete then managed in the Dodger organization and coached at the MLB level for LA, the Cubs and the Angels before passing away at age 62. 
Pete Reiser – 1951 Bowman
  • 1944 – OF Cito Gaston was born in San Antonio, Texas. In 1978, the Pirates purchased Gaston from the Atlanta Braves. The 34-year-old went 1-for-2 in the last week of the season, his last MLB appearances in an 11-year MLB career, before spending the next couple of campaigns in the Mexican League and later beginning a long run as the Toronto Blue Jays manager. 
  • 1950 – Jewel Ens passed away at age 60 in Syracuse due to pneumonia. He spent his four big league years as a Pirates (1922-25/.290 BA) infielder – he played all four spots – albeit spending most of his time in the minors. Jewel was a Bucco player-coach (1923–25), coach (1926–29; 1935–39) and manager (1929–31). Ens was a member of the 1925 World Series champion Pirates and their 1927 NL champ club. He later went on to coach in the majors for three other teams and spent eight years as skipper of the Reds top farm club at Syracuse. 
  • 1955 – The Pirate heaved a big sigh of relief when LF Frank Thomas ended his holdout and signed a deal. RHP Vern Law had also just ended his walkout and was in camp this day for the first time as Branch Rickey, known as a hard negotiator (neither contract amount was disclosed), got Fred Haney’s two top weapons to sign on the dotted line and back in the fold. 
  • 1956 – LHP Rod Scurry was born in Sacramento. Scurry tossed for the Bucs for six years (1980-85) featuring a nasty curveball, going 17-28-34 with a 3.15 ERA before closing out his career with the Yankees and Mariners. The first round pick of 1974, like many players in the eighties, was a nose-candy fan during his playing days, and never could kick the habit even after undergoing rehab in 1984. He died in 1992 of cocaine-induced heart failure at age 36. 
John Smiley – 1992 Score Impact
  • 1965 – LHP John Smiley was born in Phoenixville, near Valley Forge. He spent his first six seasons (1986-91) in Pittsburgh with a 60-42/3.57 line. 1991 was his best season, going 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA and All-Star selection. In the off season, he was traded to Minnesota for Denny Neagle, and went on to win 126 games in his 12 year career. John retired after breaking his arm while warming up in 1997; the injury effectively ended his career. 
  • 1972 – The Bucs watered their Latin roots by playing and sweeping a three-game, pre-season series against the Reds in Maracaibo & Caracas, the first time that the Pirates had made a trip to play ball in Venezuela. The final game was delayed when kids hopped the fence to get Vic Davillo’s autograph during the action. It took about ten minutes for play to resume. Beloved in his homeland, “Vitico” (Little Victor) starred in the Venezuelan League before turning pro and returned when his MLB career was done, playing until he was 50 years old. 
  • 1973 – C Raul Chavez was born in Valencia, Venezuela. Raul was a backup catcher who played for six teams, including a stop in Pittsburgh in 2008 as a 35-year-old. He started 31 games behind the dish and hit .259, but refused a minor league assignment the following season, and signed on for one more big league campaign with Toronto in 2009 before retiring. 
  • 1983 – After retiring the year before, Willie Stargell landed a job as special assistant to the GM (Pete Peterson), and was a counselor at large for the club during camp, roaming the minors to dish out mechanical and mental advice to his young charges. By 1985, he was Chuck Tanner’s hitting coach, and that’s when the Pittsburgh-Pops connection snapped. Willie was fired after the season (as were Tanner and all his staff) and miffed that he hadn’t received an interview for the vacant manager’s job, so he joined Chuck in Atlanta, where he worked until 1996. In ‘97, he returned to Pittsburgh after Kevin McClatchy reeled him back home, again as a special assistant. Captain Willie didn’t get much coaching done; he had a host of medical issues and passed away in 2001 on Opening Day at PNC Park. 
Captain Aboard – PP 3/18/1983
  • 1986KBL announced that it would broadcast a minimum of 50 Pirates games over the year, using the team of Mike Lange, Greg Brown and Steve Blass. That was in addition to the 40 games KDKA-TV was airing, using a booth of John Sanders, Alan Cutler, and Blass. Neither provider nor the Bucs gave out the financial details. On the radio side, KDKA’s crew of Lanny Frattare and Jim Rooker called all the games. 
  • 1992 – The Pirates traded LHP John Smiley (on his birthday!) after a 20-8 All-Star season to the Twins in exchange for LHP Denny Neagle and OF Midre Cummings, sweetening the pot for Minnesota by tossing in $800,000. Smiley told Bob Hertzel of the Pittsburgh Press that “I’m extremely shocked. My contract had to play a little part in this” and was probably right. He had agreed to a guaranteed $3.44M deal, a $2M raise over his 1991 pay, on February 18th, just hours ahead of his arbitration hearing, and was a year from free agency. GM Ted Simmons said no way, telling the paper that “Salary was a non-issue,” and it was just a “daring and aggressive” deal. Smiley, who had been a Pirate since being drafted in 1983, went on to toss eight more seasons, mostly with the Reds, while Neagle won 43 games in his 4-1/2 year Bucco stint and would pitch until 2003. Hot prospect Cummings ended up a bench player who posted parts of 11 MLB seasons on his resume. 
  • 2002 – Robert Dvorchak, a beat writer for the Post-Gazette, spied OF Derek Bell sitting at his locker, stopped by and asked a couple of questions about the right field competition. Bell was having none of it. He told the writer “Ask Littlefield and ask Mac if I’m in competition. If it ain’t settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain’t going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I’m going into ‘Operation Shutdown.’ Tell them exactly what I said. I haven’t competed for a job since 1991.” Bell was coming off an injury-bitten 2001 campaign, playing 44 games, hitting .173 and still owed $4.5M in salary; he was cut two weeks later. 
  • 2014 – Long time (1966-86) Post Gazette Pirates beat writer Charley Feeney, known for calling everyone “Pally” (he didn’t have a good memory for names) passed away at the age of 89. He was inducted into the writer’s wing of the Hall of Fame in 1996. After his selection, he told fellow sportswriter Ron Cook that “I’m in and Bill Mazeroski isn’t. It’s unbelievable.” Maz joined him in Cooperstown five years later.


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