The rag-tag bunch of rookies Gene Lamont inherited from legendary Pirates manager Jim Leyland in 1997 were widely expected to finish last in the NL Central. Unexpectedly, Lamont's low-budget squad went 79-83 and nearly stole the division crown from the Houston Astros in the last week of the season.
Lamont was no stranger to splashy debuts. He homered off of Cal Koonce of the Red Sox in his first major league at-bat for the Tigers in 1970. Lamont had spent five years as a highly touted catcher in the Detroit organization after being drafted ahead of Johnny Bench by the Tigers in 1965. But after his auspicious big-league debut Lamont managed just three more homers and 14 RBIs over the next five years, only appearing in 87 major-league games.
Lamont joined the Royals' organization after retiring as a player in 1977, managing their Single-A Fort Myers club for two years and Double-A Jacksonville for four, finishing first in 1982 (when he was named the Southern League's Manager of the Year) and 1983. After two seasons in Omaha he joined the Pirates' new manager, Jim Leyland, as Pittsburgh's third base coach in 1986. The Pirates finished dead last in the National League that year, but thanks to the emergence of Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds, crawled closer to respectability in 1987 with an 80-82 record.
By 1992, the Pirates had twice won the NL East with a team built mainly from homegrown talent.
When manager Jeff Torborg left the White Sox to take the same position with the Mets in 1992, Chicago hired Lamont, who had grown up a Cubs fan in Kirkland, IL. Under their new skipper, the Sox dropped a game in the won-loss column, but in 1993 rebounded to win 94 and finish first in the AL West for the first time since Tony LaRussa's Chicago club had won 99 games in 1983. Lamont's resultant AL Manager of the Year honors was earned by coaxing top performances out of Frank Thomas (.317, 41 homers, 128 RBIs) and Robin Ventura (.262, 22, 94) and nurturing an outstanding rotation that featured Jack McDowell (22-10, 3.37 ERA), Alex Fernandez (18-9, 3.13), Wilson Alvarez (15-8, 2.95), and Jason Bere (12-5, 3.47).
With a squad similar to the 1993 steamroller, Chicago probably would have made the playoffs in '94 were it not for the players' strike. In 1995, the team slumped badly, and with the White Sox in fourth place after an 11-20 start Chicago replaced Lamont with Terry Bevington. Lamont headed back to Pittsburgh to take a coaching job with the Pirates.
Since most of Pittsburgh's stars had moved on due to deep cuts in the club's payroll, the Pirates' roster mostly featured inexperienced, unknown rookies. Within a year manager Jim Leyland had left the last-place Pirates to head the Florida Marlins, leaving Lamont in charge. Adopting an aggressive style of play that focused on fundamentals and clutch hitting, Lamont's young, hungry squad consistently surprised teams throughout the National League. His team's unexpected second-place finish gave him enough votes to finish as runner-up to the Giants' Dusty Baker in the Manager of the Year balloting.
The Pirates slumped to last place in '98 (with losses in 25 of their last 30 games) leading some to criticize Lamont's low-key, laid-back demeanor as a bad fit for a team sorely in need of a spark. But team management kept Lamont on board in the hopes that he could return the team to prominence by the time Pittsburgh's new ballpark opened in 2001. Given the vote of confidence, Lamont's Pirates rebounded to a 73-83 record in '99. (JGR)
FROM THE BASEBALL CHRONOLOGY
»September 2, 1970: Detroit's Gene Lamont homers in his first ML at bat, but the Red Sox this time hold the lead and beat the Tigers 10–1 in the nitecap. Cal Koonce is the CG winner, adding two RBIs with his 2nd hit of the year. The Tigers win the opener, 6–4, scoring two unearned runs in the 8th.
»July 15, 1994:
In the first inning at Comiskey Park, Sox manager Gene Lamont accuses Indian slugger Albert Belle of using a corked bat, and umpire Dave Phillips confiscates the bat and stores it in the ump's dressing room. In a Mission Impossible caper revealed in 1999, the Indians Jason Grimsley crawls 100 feet along a ceiling, drops down into the dressing room, and exchanges Belle's bat for one of Paul Sorrento's. After the 3–2 Indian's win, the switch is discovered to the consternation of the umps and the White Sox. The Indians subsequently turn over one of Belle's bats and Belle is given a 10-day suspension, later reduced to seven games.
»May 11, 1999:
The Astros pound out 18 hits in defeating the Pirates, 19-8. CF Carl Everett drives home five runs for Houston, while 1B Jeff Bagwell and 3B Ken Caminiti plate four apiece. Pirate backup catcher Keith Osik takes one for the team when manager Gene Lamont puts him on the mound in relief instead of his overworked relief corp. With the Pirates down 15-8 in the 8th, Osik walks two, strikes out one, hits a batter and gives up two hits. He allows four runs in his inning of work.
»May 20, 2000:
Catcher Keith Osik of the Pittsburgh Pirates is pressed into service on as a relief pitcher in the ninth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals. Manager Gene Lamont has Osik finish the game and save the bullpen with the Pirates down, 14-3. Osik made a relief appearance last year giving up four runs in one inning of work, and today is not any better as he allows five runs on five hits, hits two batters, has a wild pitch and a home run in one inning.
»October 1, 2000:
After Sister Sledge sings the National Anthem to a season-high crowd of 55,352, the Cubs edge the Pirates, 10-9, in the final game to be played at Three Rivers Stadium. The Bucs have a chance when the first three batters in the 9th single, but three outs follow, including the final PO by Mark Grace, who is then hugged by his teammates. Bucs soon-to-be manager Gene Lamont gets a 2-minute standing O when introduced.
»October 2, 2000: Three more managers get their walking papers today: Buck Showalter is fired as manager of the Diamondbacks. Jack McKeon is let go as manager of the Reds; and Gene Lamont is fired as manager of the Pirates.