The Most Overrated Pittsburgh Sports Figures of the Past 30 Years
The last 30 years bridged one era of Pittsburgh's "City of Champions" status (1979) into another (2009). During this time, who were the sports figures that we were told were better than they really were?
This article follows my earlier piece on the 10 most "underappreciated" figures.
Here's my opinion—and I'd love to hear yours!
10. Former Duquesne men's basketball coach Danny Nee
He only was hired as Duquesne’s head basketball coach because he had been at Robert Morris for a year, where he went 7-20. One prominent Pittsburgh sportscaster noted Nee’s enthusiasm and hinted if he couldn’t turn around the Dukes' fortunes, it was a hopeless situation.
Instead, current head coach Ron Everhart has won six more games in three years at the helm than Nee did in five (48-42).
9. Former Pirates closer Jim Gott
Saved a Pirate-record 34 games in 1988, but his famous three-balk performance on Aug. 6 against the Mets was the turning point that caused a young team five games out of first place to collapse and finish 15 games off the pace. He was never heard from again.
A pedestrian 3.49 ERA and lack of longevity keeps him from being listed alongside Kent Tekulve, Dave Giusti, and Roy Face.
8. Former Pirates catcher Jason Kendall
Not a poor player, but $8.5 million a season was simply too much to pay for a singles hitter with lackluster defensive skills.
7. Former Pirates second baseman Jose Lind
If Neil O’Donnell is a choker, what is Lind for his fatal error in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1992 National League Championship Series? With O’Donnell, one can truthfully say, “They wouldn’t have made it to the Super Bowl without him.”
Think the Bucs still wouldn’t have won the '92 NL East with Carlos Garcia at second? Or won the 1990 and 1991 titles with Johnny Ray, who put up better offensive and defensive stats than Lind in California after he was traded to the Angels?
6. Former Pirates outfielder Andy Van Slyke
Not an unproductive player during his tenure in Pittsburgh, but he never embraced being a Pirate. He was hailed as the best defensive center fielder in baseball when the St. Louis Cardinals played him in right field for his first four years in the majors.
And, through no fault of his own, Van Slyke was the player management decided to keep from the division title years instead of Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla.
5. Boxer Paul Spadafora
He stole Billy Conn’s nickname, ducked opponents, and you knew he was a thug even before he went to prison for shooting his girlfriend. Can’t we just embrace Michael Moorer instead of this guy?
4. Syd Thrift
The late Thrift, on the right beside Gene Lamont, is given credit for resurrecting the Pirates with a series of trades in the late 1980s, especially Tony Pena for Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere, and Mike Dunne.
Yet it was the Cardinals who made the World Series thanks to Pena’s playoff heroics in 1987, while the Pirates never got there.
Thrift drafted Jeff King in 1986 ahead of Matt Williams, Gary Sheffield, and Kevin Brown, and career minor leaguer Mark Merchant ahead of Craig Biggio, Delino DeShields, Jack McDowell, and 20 other major leaguers selected in the first round of the 1987 Amateur Free Agent Draft.
And for every Rick Rhoden for Doug Drabek, there was a Johnny Ray for Bill Merrifield.
3. Pittsburgh Associates: Former Pirates Owners 1985-96
The 14-member panel, which from 1993-96 included Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy (shown in middle), was often credited with saving the franchise from moving in 1985 by purchasing the team from the Galbreaths. But where was the competing offer to take the Bucs out of town?
In fact, then-manager Chuck Tanner was attempting to purchase the team and keep it in town. One wonders how a group of civic leaders couldn’t find a local buyer for the Pirates in 1995 and save them from the doldrums they fell into.
2. Former Steelers quarterback Bubby Brister
In his first season as a starter, the Steelers finished 5-11, their worst record of the last 39 seasons. He followed this with a season in which he threw for nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions, went a month without producing a touchdown the next season, and lost his job six weeks into the following season, a 7-9 stinker.
When pressed into service due to injuries to Neil O'Donnell the following season, 1992, he failed to lead the offense to a single touchdown in his next two games despite inheriting a team with a 10-3 season.
YET AFTER ALL OF THIS, the media pressed Bill Cowher to start Brister instead of O’Donnell for the Steelers’ playoff game against Buffalo!
1. Former Pirates manager Jim Leyland
Not even close.
No manager in the history of the National League has ever managed a single team longer WITHOUT taking it to the World Series.
Leyland hit the greatest home run hitter in the history of baseball leadoff for four seasons, where he couldn't drive in any runs, and put natural right fielder-first baseman Bobby Bonilla at third base while natural third baseman Darnell Coles played right in 1987 and 1988.
Leyland bragged about this decision while Bonilla led the league in errors.
The following season, Leyland then put third baseman Jeff King at first while Bonilla stayed at third and the Bucs finished fifth.
ONLY AFTER FOUR SEASONS OF THIS DID HE FIGURE OUT WHAT POSITIONS HIS PLAYERS SHOULD PLAY!
Leyland never received the criticism he should have for strategic moves as costly to the Pirates in the playoffs as Bonds’ ineffectiveness, including starting relief pitcher Ted Power in Game Six of the 1990 NLCS (he didn’t last three innings), plus batting .188-hitting Curtis Wilkerson for .295 Don Slaught in Game Two of the ’91 NLCS to play lefty-righty, then watching Wilkerson get blown away by Alejandro Pena with the tying run on third to end the game.
He also failed to walk Greg Olsen with first base open and Rafael Belliard on deck in a tie game in the ninth inning of Game Six—then watched the Atlanta catcher collect the game-winning hit.
He even failed to prepare Stan Belinda with any work for a week during the Pirates’ collapse in Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS, then blamed an umpire’s call rather than his own inability to take out the ineffective Belinda for the loss.
Was made out to be a "Pittsburgh Guy" by the media; his hometown is Perrysburg, Ohio.
Also spoke of how he loved Pittsburgh but then walked away from his job with four years on his contract to permanently change a once glamorous franchise’s reputation to a team nobody wants to play for.
Along with his tutor Tony La Russa, brought overspecialization to baseball.
And is said to have played a large part in pushing General Manager Ted Simmons out the door. The Bucs haven't had a winning season since.
Today, his soundbites are often lampooned nationwide on "Imus in the Morning." After he left Pittsburgh, a book, "If They Don't Win It's a Shame," painted him in a different light than the image he had in Pittsburgh; touched upon something of a too-close relationship he had with certain members of the media that looked the other way at his gaffes.
Jim Leyland is not only the most overrated sports figure in Pittsburgh during the last 30 years, but is the most overrated figure in sports, period.
He is a poor strategist, a sour man who consistently tells media of his players’ limits rather than strengths, and is as responsible for the Bucs’ current losing spin as anyone. It's no coincidence the Pirates’ best season of a generation, 1997, occurred immediately after his departure.
At least Gene Lamont put the players in the right positions!